Mennonite Miss Chihuahua Part II: Entrepreneur, Public Servant, and Cultural Ambassador

Katharine Renpenning’s journey to becoming “Mennonite Miss Chihuahua” is explored in Part I of this series: Mennonite Miss Chihuahua: Pageant Politics, Family Tragedy and the Crown.

After being crowned Miss Chihuahua and competing in the national Señorita Mexico pageant in 19871, Katharine Renpenning’s life was never the same. She moved to Chihuahua City to work for the government promoting tourism, which was one of her duties as Miss Chihuahua, and then went to Canada to study English. The director of the English school in Canada was so impressed with her English and entrepreneurial skills that he suggested that she offer English courses and travel experiences from Mexico. And so, in 1994, she started Keers2, a travel agency focused on English language immersions for children and adults ranging from summer camps and semesters abroad to IELTS and TOEFL preparation and professional work-study opportunities. Over the years, the agency began to offer educational travel opportunities outside the English-speaking world and expanded its language immersion program offerings to include French, Portuguese, German, Japanese and Mandarin. In 2018 in an interview with the Rebels, Exiles, and Bridge Builders Oral History Project, Katharine reflected on nearly twenty-four years of being in business:

We’re dedicated to managing study abroad programs, primarily we have courses for children: summer camps, or a high school course. We have contacts with schools, for example, Mennonite schools in Canada, government schools, private schools. We have contact with universities, sometimes I go visit the schools, the University of Winnipeg and Bartolomeos. I manage primarily Canada for people from Mexico. It’s very attractive because the English they speak there is more in-line with the media, more economical in terms of the exchange rate of the Canadian dollar. Now, we also manage, for example, my nephew is studying high school in Austria. We have children who go to study in Germany, school or just German or they go to France and study French combined with culture, with scents, with gastronomy. Chinese [also], right? We manage visas to go to China, as a visitor, as a student, or to Japan. And we [also] have Australia, which is also a country that offers an opportunity to study and work3.

In the oral history interview, Katharine mentioned that she has a showroom on the first floor of her business that is decorated like a traditional Mennonite home where she serves Faspa and hosts educational workshops about the Mennonite community. And that her business, travel and life in Chihuahua was all made possible by her pageant involvement.

[After the pageant] many things in life changed. . . . the family stopped thinking about my brother who had died and everything changed. I had a lot of opportunities, right? To grow. To know and to get to know who the Mennonites are, right? I’m identified as a Mennonite. The Mennonites say I’m not Mennonite and the Mexicans that I’m not Mexican, so, “What am I?” But, from that time onward I had the opportunity to grow a lot and also for the Mennonites be an ambassador of Mennonite culture. It’s been thirty years and it has been very beautiful. There are still many people who recognize me where I go. Now, for example, I’m very interested in people getting to know Mennonite culture. I like that the people who don’t know, who are outside, can get to know what it really is, right? And what God wants from us. That gives me the opportunity sometimes to talk with people about Mennonites and who they are.4

In the midst of running her successful business, Katharine was approached by staffers from Jose Reyes Baeza Terrazas’ governor’s campaign. Baeza Terrazas, who had previously served as a representative from Chihuahua in the National Congress (2003-2004) and as the mayor of Chihuahua City (1998-2001), wanted her to assist him in his campaign and in his government in exchange for the creation of a state resource office that was focused on the needs and development of Mennonite settlements across Chihuahua. Katharine remembers refusing his offer at first, but then accepting after Baeza Terrazas personally assured her that he would keep his word.5

I was invited to work for the government with the Reyes Baeza campaign. So, I said no that I couldn’t because those politicians always tell lies and never do what they say they are going to do and I was not going to make myself available to be doing something like that. So, they promised me that if the governor was going to offer something that he was going to follow through on it. And when he won, he said to me, ‘Well, ok . . . you are the person who can help me keep my word.’ So, the program was created and the program was to have a resource office between Mennonites and the government.6

The program, Chihuahua Vive Con Los Menonitas, ran from 2010-2016 under the leadership of the PRI party and was the first iteration of the government resource office that served as a liaison between the state of the Chihuahua and Mennonite communities across the state.

The program was created and the program is to have a resource office between Mennonites and the government. So, there were programs of every type. Education, for example, we did for education. ‘This is what has to be done in education, in rural development, in health, in transit.’ It was very beautiful, a little difficult. It was my first close contact with the community because all my contact had been more from afar. Many people had known that I had been the Miss Chihuahua that was Mennonite, right? And I felt sometimes that they saw me as a specimen of admiration and rejection, right? And people, yes, know me a little, but during the program period, well, we brought programs, for example, in rural development.

So, also, I was tasked, for example to be in education and to try to bring it. They said to me, the leaders of the colony asked me if they were going to prohibit churches like they did in Canada. And I told them, ‘No, that is not the case. What the government wants is that the schools actually teach students what is necessary for life. That children learn how to read, learn math, learn geography, really learn that it would be a place where children learn, if you do that the government won’t involve itself, but if children leave illiterate, we can’t permit that.’ So, out of principle, the Manitoba Colony started a new program that they called Mejoramiento en Educación [Improvement in Education] where they also gave classes in Spanish, classes in some other areas.

So, all those programs were brought down, culture, education, rural development, overall- was very gratifying because many people well, were very happy, thankful.7

The Mennonite Resource Office went through a few different iterations during its existence and had two different directors after Katharine Renpenning. The office was in flux every six years when there was a change in political leadership at the state level. These shifts were particularly notable when there was a change of ruling political party and when the local reigning political party was different from the political party at the state level. Despite some shifts in funding, preferred projects, or ideological approaches, the goal of the Mennonite Resource Office maintained the same goal of resourcing and developing Mennonite communities with the permission, trust, and support of Mennonite community leaders

The subsequent directors of the Mennonite Resource Office, Angelica Chavez Licon8 and Claudia Perez Howlet9, were interviewed for the Rebels, Exiles, and Bridge Builders Oral History Project and the full audio and clips are available on the Darp Stories YouTube channel10. A Mennonite employee who discussed their role as a program promoter and language service provider was also interviewed for the project on the condition that they remain anonymous. Their interview summary is available by request from the Mennonite Heritage Archives.11

Claudia Perez Howlet, the last director of the resource office before it closed its physical location along the Commercial Corridor in the Manitoba Colony located about 10 kilometers north of Cuauhtémoc in 2019, described the resources, services, and development projects that the office sponsored:

In this office we serve as a resource. We have a translator, for example, who translates for large events all the way down to the smallest things, who is right now accompanying a lady, an older woman from the nursing home to her appointment with Social Security. So that the doctor understands what is being said during these appointments through this interpretation. Translation of diagnoses, of whatever they want. Whatever information you want to reach the Mennonites, we translate. We have translated many transit campaigns, many civil protection campaigns. For the winter, for heaters. We translate everything we are asked to translate. We have gotten a lot of information that we edit, translate, and print in German. We don’t have much of a budget, but sometimes we have printed that information. Also, on the topic of health, are the fairs. Health fairs in many of the most remote Campos, like I told you, we went to El Sabinal. We go to traditional schools, and the more open ones allow us to vaccinate. Well, it is completely voluntary, but every time more children come with their shot records, with parental approval to receive a vaccine. In the incorporated [SEP, Secretary of Public Education] schools, we also have many programs in which we go with the health services. Last year we went to all the schools incorporated through the Álvaro Obregón school.

We went to their schools, along with the health sector. We, the entire government, try to see ourselves as a team. And everything we have at our disposal; we pool in order to serve. For example, we worry about everything here at the municipal level and at the state level concerning the economy. The programs, lending, from the municipalities to farmers and day-laborers that work for the Mennonites, because many times they don’t know this is available from us.  We work together as a team with the Centro de Salud, especially in giving health fairs in the Campos.  We have general practitioners, pediatricians, OBGYNs. They do mammograms, cervical cancer screenings, vaccinations, screenings for chronic diseases such as hypertension and diabetes. We bring in specialists to give talks. The health sector goes to schools to present on “The Healthy Plate” and the importance of physical activity, they check height and weight, the give vaccines, and even videos on how to properly brush teeth and various other topics, and they discuss symptoms of serious illnesses that they could be on guard for. Everything the schools allow us to present, because not all the information is allowed. We have to show the directors what we are planning to present to the children, and they tell us “Yes,” or “No.”  Because Mestiza education is a bit more open about many topics, right. And Mennonite education is more conservative in that aspect, so we share what we are allowed to. For those interested in education, we have an agreement with ICHEA, (Instituto Chihuahuense de Educación para los Adultos, Chihuahuan Institute for Adult Education) and we invite and help them. We have them at the fairs, so that the Mennonites who studied at traditional schools have access to education. Because the traditional schools only go to fifth grade, and only include German, Bible, and basic math. And then they go work on the farm. But many want more education, thus ICHEA. There aren’t schools or many resources, but through ICHEA they can have the books at home to study, and write an exam for our accreditation.

And then, in the area of economics, we coordinate events. We coordinate events with businesses, for example, such as with the Expo Menonita, every other year in September. We help with the organization, distribution, getting funders to make sure in happens, as a way of boosting the economy. For farmers.

As to the cultural aspect of our work, well, we foster individual and collective participation, and we organize meetings with youth to organize activities, because many times there aren’t activities here on the Corredor. So, we have tried to implement them with various youth. What we can do within the scope of our organization, and if we can’t, well, we can look for those who can. Those with more resources. This is a project we have been pushing, and the way we broke into that last year was with a very cool event we organized in December, which was the Parade of Lights. It was with a group of youth. It was initiated by them, and it was a success. We were very happy with it. So, this year we would like to continue, maybe with baseball tournaments, or whatever they suggest. They are just hanging out in the streets, so, we need to have more healthy activities. They are far from the city. If they want to go to the movie theater or something, not everyone can, they have no way of going. They also don’t have many things, so we are worried about that. And in the cultural aspect, we also look for events, and help with organizing and support, different competitions. We encourage participation in La Festival de las Tres Culturas (The Festival of the Three Cultures) so that the Mennonite culture is also represented. And well, basically, social development includes every area, but we principally focus on what is most necessary.

All of our activities are broadcasted Abram Siemens on the radio. He has helped us a lot. In broadcasting and all that. Everything we have. He is always asking, “What can I help with? And in this? What is happening this week?” So, he does interviews and is constantly spreading the word. Thank God, we have a good relationship with colony leadership. We are in constant communication. Thanks to communication media. Now, WhatsApp is a marvelous tool. I have a WhatsApp group with about 200 colony leaders. That’s how everybody knows to go to an event. Everything we have available, or that we do, or who we are, we are here to meet their needs. And it is through them. And they have opened many doors for us, and distribute many things for us.

We have to respect the customs of everyone. They respect ours, and we respect theirs that are completely- It seems to me that we live in the same place. Different cultures, but I think that we learned to live together very well with that.12

The physical location of the Mennonite Resource Office closed at the beginning of 2019 after nearly ten years of operation; however, the Chihuahuan government maintains that they will continue the Mennonite Service Program from the state capital under the Department of Social Development13

Katharine Renpenning, the “Mennonite Miss Chihuahua,” without whom the Mennonite Resource Office would not have been founded, resides quietly in Chihuahua City and continues to run Keers, which recently celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary. She marveled at the path that her life had taken her and emphasized the responsibility she felt to continue to bring people from different communities together.

I think we are bridge builders. Not just cultural, [but] we are generational bridge builders. We are economic bridge builders. We are bridge builders in an ecological aspect in respect for love for God, love for nature . . . bridge building is very important.14


1. Darp Stories, “Señorita México 1987 con Katherine Renpenning (Nuestra Belleza Mexicana Excerpt)” YouTube video, 6 minutes, November 16, 2021, https://youtu.be/hgoCu3rvHo0

2. Keers, “Keers 25 Años” https://www.keersmx.com/index.html

3. Katharine Renpenning, interview by Abigail Carl-Klassen, March 23, 2018, Interview 34, transcript, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, Winnipeg, MB.  

4. Ibid.

5. Jose Reyes Baeza Terrazas. Wikipedia en Español, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jos%C3%A9_Reyes_Baeza_Terrazas

6. Katharine Renpenning, interview by Abigail Carl-Klassen, March 23, 2018, Interview 34, transcript, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, Winnipeg, MB.

7. Ibid.

8. Angelica Chavez Licon, interview by Abigail Carl-Klassen, March 23, 2018, Interview 35, transcript, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, Winnipeg, MB.

9. Claudia Yazel Perez Howlet, interview by Abigail Carl-Klassen, February 20, 2018, Interview 19, transcript, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, Winnipeg, MB.

10. Darp Stories, “Trailer: Rebels, Exiles, and Bridge Builders” YouTube video, 4 minutes, May 1, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCGy9sd_xNDQTwffveCOhvhg/featured

11. Name Withheld by Request, interview by Abigail Carl-Klassen, March 8, 2018, Interview 27, transcript, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, Winnipeg, MB.

12. Claudia Yazel Perez Howlet, interview by Abigail Carl-Klassen, February 20, 2018, Interview 19, transcript, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, Winnipeg, MB.

13. Maribel Alba, “Cierra oficina de atención a Menonitas,” El Heraldo de Chihuahua, 31 Jan 2019, https://www.pressreader.com/mexico/el-heraldo-de-chihuahua/20190131/282995401101925

14. Katharine Renpenning, interview by Abigail Carl-Klassen, March 23, 2018, Interview 34, transcript, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, Winnipeg, MB.

Southern Anabaptist Colleges and Civil War Memory: Eastern Mennonite

Regina Wenger

This is my second post exploring the relationship between southern Anabaptist colleges and Civil War memory. In my first post, I summarized the experiences of Anabaptists during the Civil War before discussing how Bridgewater College—founded in 1880—recalled the Civil War. I suggest reviewing that piece before reading the one that follows. Below I examine Civil War memory at Eastern Mennonite and offer some conclusions that compare it to how memory operated at Bridgewater.


As an adolescent, Peter S. Hartman witnessed the tribulations the Civil War unleashed on the Shenandoah Valley. Years later, the Mennonite recalled Stonewall Jackson’s 1862 Valley Campaign and the Battles of Good’s Farm (Harrisonburg), Cross Keys, Port Republic, and New Market. Though, he stated, none of those conflicts compared to General Philip Sheridan’s “never-to-be-forgotten raid” in 1864:

We just began to realize what war was when Sheridan made his raid. They came [to Harrisonburg] Sunday noon . . . . There was no preaching anywhere that Sunday, so I went over to visit one of our neighbors right at Weaver’s Church. We could see from there Sheridan’s army coming up the [Valley] Pike and spreading all over the country, and I concluded I would better go home. When I got home the whole farm was overrun with soldiers shooting the stock…. Everything was taken, horses, hogs, sheep, except some chickens and four milk cows.1

Sixty-four years after Sheridan’s Union troops charred the Shenandoah Valley, Hartman told the tale of his experiences to students at Eastern Mennonite School.2 Founded in 1917, the Mennonite educational institution did not endure the war, but through the stories of Hartman and others, there developed a collective memory of the Civil War.

Early in the twentieth century, a group of Virginia Mennonite leaders wished to create a school for Mennonites in the eastern part of the United States. There already existed schools such Goshen College, which served Mennonites in the Midwest; however, no such institution existed for the 75 percent of Mennonites in the East.3 Bishops Lewis James (L.J.) Heatwole and George R. Brunk, as well as other leaders, advocated for higher education opportunities for Mennonites that simultaneously built up the church.4 Evan Knappenberger characterizes most of these men as “religious moderates willing to push the church in new directions while still remain­ing committed to the ideals of nonresistance and plain dress.”5 The school they envisioned shared those goals. In 1912, George R. Brunk developed a plan for a school located in Warwick, Virginia, and asked fellow church leaders for help. However, in mid-1913, Brunk proposed moving the institution to the Hayfield mansion near Alexandria, Virginia. The Alexandria Mennonite Institute and later the Hayfield Bible School floundered amongst personality, ecclesial, and financial conflicts.6 Through the efforts of Bishop L.J. Heatwole and Peter S. Hartman, Virginia Mennonites acquired land in Assembly Park, north of Harrisonburg, Virginia. From that site Eastern Mennonite emerged.

Eastern Mennonite—officially chartered in 1917—ran as a Bible school independent of broader Mennonite Church control until 1923. These Virginia Mennonites, including Bishop Heatwole, selected John B. (J.B.) Smith of Ohio as president (principal) of the school and developed a Bible school curriculum that operated on four tracks: academy, Bible, preparatory, and correspondence.7 However, within a few years, Smith ran afoul of the Board and departed back to Ohio. They then appointed noted evangelist and Virginian Amos Daniel (A.D.) Wenger to the presidency. He served from 1922 until his death in 1935, and it is during his administration that Civil War remembrances at Eastern Mennonite first come into view.

The activities of student literary societies and the periodical the Eastern Mennonite School Journal show an institution that idealized the South, and while condemning slavery, embraced derogatory stereotypes about African Americans. In April 1927, John D. Burkholder wrote a piece called “Family Life: As Seen by Jim Owen, Indentured Servant.” It detailed how an English indentured servant fell in love with southern culture and told of interactions with “mammies” and “darkies.” The piece concluded by saying, “As [he and his master] drove up the shady, inviting drive to the old mansion, Jim felt that he had indeed reached the Utopia of his dreams.”8 Though Eastern Mennonite included students from elsewhere in the United States, the early years of the Journal contains rhapsodic accounts of the “Sunny Southland,” the endearing peculiarity of African Americans, and the high quality of postbellum southern literature.9 In 1928 and 1929, respectively, the Philomathian and Smithsonian literary societies held programs on “The Negro” and “Southern Literature” that both featured “Negro spirituals” as musical selections.10 Through featuring an idealistic portrait of the South, southern culture, and African Americans, the Journal showed sympathy for the South and minimized the affect of slavery on African Americans. In addition, student Grace Showalter observed, that “Southern conventionality,” formed an important aspect of Virginia Mennonites’ spirituality.11 However, more important than the Journal’s contents was the role played by Peter S. Hartman on Civil War memory at Eastern Mennonite.

Beginning at least in 1920, Hartman delivered an annual lecture featuring his Civil War memories to Eastern Mennonite students and faculty.12 As noted in the opening story, Hartman was a young man when the war started in 1861. He later served as a lay leader in Virginia Mennonite Conference, was instrumental in purchasing the former plantation land on which the school was built, and acted as an informal development officer for Eastern Mennonite.13 Each of the written versions of his oral account followed the same narrative structure: (1) reiteration of the Mennonite Church’s nonresistance and stance against slavery, (2) the foreshadowing of the Civil War in John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry and Lincoln’s election to the presidency, (3) the imprisonment of Anabaptists in Richmond for nonresistance, (4) the passage of conscription laws accounting for members of Anabaptist churches, (5) war’s material hardships, (6) the local battles of Stonewall Jackson’s 1862 Shenandoah Valley campaign, as well as the Burning, (7) Hartman’s interactions with General Sheridan and journey North with his Union caravan, (8) work experience in the North, and finally (9) viewing Lincoln’s body in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, before returning home to a decimated Virginia.14 He summarized the primary theme in his lecture’s concluding line: “All this time the Church stood for non-resistance.”15 In addition to his annual lecture, Hartman also shared with students his recollections of Reconstruction.16 Other narrations of the Civil War by Virginia Mennonites Emmanuel Suter and Bishop L.J. Heatwole echoed Hartman’s emphasis on hardship and nonresistance.17 Students at Eastern Mennonite thus heard about the Civil War as a conflict Mennonites were in, but not a part of.

Historical memory of the Civil War at Eastern Mennonite consisted of a singular stream of nonresistance, muddied by a romanticized view of the pastoral South and its culture. Explicit valorization of the Confederacy does not appear in any Eastern Mennonite sources. Rather, despite their occasional harshness and destruction, the Union is discussed more frequently and favorably in Eastern Mennonite memories of the war. Though a “savage looking man,” Hartman described how General Sheridan ensured his safe passage North.18 The Mennonite Church’s distain for slavery, even while simultaneously resisting and engaging with Confederate Virginia, also comes through in Hartman’s telling. As previously noted, Anabaptist participation in the Confederate economy made it difficult for them to receive financial compensation for the destruction of the war, despite sympathies for the Union. Additionally, American Mennonite identity as a nonresistant people partially lies in the centrality of suffering for the faith, as told in the stories of sixteenth-century European Anabaptist martyrs recorded in Thieleman J. van Braght’s Martyrs Mirror. Though born two years after the Civil War, Eastern Mennonite President A.D. Wenger found the text instrumental to his conversion.19 As Julia Spicher Kasdorf contends, “the publication history of Martyrs Mirror doesn’t precisely coincide with the nation’s wars, and yet American Mennonites tend to rally around the big book whenever the rest of the nation rallies around the flag.”20 Primed with tales from the Martyrs Mirror, Eastern Mennonite students likely heard a similar message of suffering and nonresistance in Peter Hartman’s Civil War recollections that he regularly delivered after the hardships of World War I. While Eastern Mennonite’s southern context shaped the imagination of many of its students and administrators, the dominant narrative surrounding Civil War recollections remained nonresistance amidst suffering.

Conclusions

Mennonites, Brethren, and their respective educational institutions possessed common religious memories of the Civil War grounded in the nonresistant theology of Anabaptism, but diverged by degree of emphasis. Ritual sites of memory appeared at both Bridgewater and Eastern Mennonite. Literary societies perpetuated nostalgic narratives about the South and African Americans. John Wayland and Bridgewater recalled the war through annually commemorating Lee’s birthday, while Eastern Mennonite’s Hartman lecture narrated another tale of heroic suffering for a cause. The nonresistant perspective also allowed John Wayland to describe Elder John Kline as a faithful Christian martyr. Likewise, Peter Hartman described himself and the Mennonite Church as the innocent suffering amidst the tribulations of the Civil War. Both Bridgewater and Eastern Mennonite also shared a history as institutions started by white southerners. As James Lehman and Steve Nolt observe, Anabaptists, like many of their neighbors in the reconstructing South, chose to value the repair of national and local relationships over advocating for the rights of African Americans. Thus their historical memory coincides with the reconcilationist narrative that historian David Blight chronicled in Race and Reunion.21

While both institutions held nonresistance as a wartime memory, only Bridgewater College explicitly endorsed the religion of the Lost Cause. The Lost Cause existed with nonresistance for the Brethren school as intermingling religious memories.22 On the other hand, Eastern Mennonite’s religious remembrances favored the Union, though they appear to not have competed with its nonresistant memories but, rather, reinforced them. Mennonites narrated themselves as distinct from their southern neighbors in their opposition to slavery and the Confederacy, as well as their pacifism. However, the presence of southern influence at both institutions raises the question as to what extent its culture served as a defining characteristic of the schools. Perhaps nonresistance defined demographics and marketing rather the schools’ cultures.23 After Eastern Mennonite graduated its first African American student in 1954, a local Mennonite schoolteacher explained reluctance around desegregation stating, “A bit of the Southern attitude rubs off on us, perhaps as a result of our public school experience. One tends to feel sympathetic to one’s state and its part in the Civil War.”24 Thus a fuller understanding of Civil War memory at southern Anabaptist colleges requires attention to the presence, in varying degrees, of the religious recollections of the Lost Cause and nonresistance.


1. Peter S. Hartman, “Civil War Reminiscences,” The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, February 1928, 17.

2. Originally started as Eastern Mennonite School, it later became Eastern Mennonite College, and is today known as Eastern Mennonite University. In this paper, the school will be referred to as Eastern Mennonite.

3. Donald B. Kraybill, Eastern Mennonite University: A Century of Countercultural Education (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2017), 24. The relationship between the foundings of Goshen College and Eastern Mennonite remain a matter of historiographical debate. The longstanding narrative reproduced in Eastern Mennonite’s institutional histories describe the school as a conservative reaction to Goshen which resulted in hostility between the schools for decades. Kraybill, Eastern Mennonite University: A Century of Countercultural Education; Hubert R. Pellman, Eastern Mennonite College, 1917-1967: A History (Harrisonburg, VA: Eastern Mennonite College, 1967); Nathan Emerson Yoder, “Mennonite Fundamentalism: Shaping an Identity for an American Context” (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Notre Dame, 1999). Recently, Evan Knappenberger pushed back against that interpretation with a compelling argument that Eastern Mennonite shared an educational vision with Goshen and was started not as “an ideological alternative to Goshen but a geographical extension of it.” Evan K. Knappenberger, “To Shake The Whole World From Error’s Chain: An Alternative History Of The Founding Of Eastern Mennonite” (M.A. Thesis, Eastern Mennonite Seminary, 2016), 68, emphasis original.

4. Knappenberger, 88-98.

5. Evan K. Knappenberger, “New Take on an Old War: Valley Mennonites and the Lingering Consequences of the Civil War,” Shenandoah Mennonite Historian, Summer 2016, 16.

6. For a more detailed treatment of the earlier iterations of Eastern Mennonite see: Kraybill, Chapters 1 & 2, Knappenberger, “To Shake The Whole World,” 88-98.

7. Kraybill, 55-57.

8. John D. Burkholder, “Family Life: As Seen by Jim Owen, Indentured Servant,” The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, April 1927, 3-6. It’s unclear whether Burkholder created this piece as a work of fiction or recorded the oral account of Mr. Owen.

9. Mary M. Wenger, “Vacation on Vineland Farm,” The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, January 1923, 2-4; A.D Wenger, Jr., “Southern Literature,” April 1923, The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, 2-3; “Personal News Notes,” The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, April 1926, 19.

10. “Philomathean,” The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, June 1928, 17; “With Our Literaries: Smithsonian,” The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, July 1929, 21.

11. Kraybill, 112. Showalter went on to serve as director of Eastern Mennonite’s Historical Library from 1955-1990.

12. “Editorials,” The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, February 1928, 1; Harry A. Brunk, “The Gist of the Short Term Lectures,” The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, March 1930, 5-6. Hartman likely delivered the lecture regularly until his death in 1934.

13. Brunk, Harry A., Life of Peter S. Hartman: Including His Lecture Reminiscences of the Civil War and Articles by the Hartman Family (Harrisonburg, VA: The Hartman Family, 1937), 31-40; Hartman, “Civil War Reminiscences,” 7.

14. Hartman, “Civil War Reminiscences,” 7-21, Brunk, Life of Peter S. Hartman, 1937; Peter S. Hartman and Harry A. Brunk, Reminiscences of the Civil War (Lancaster, PA: Eastern Mennonite Associated Libraries and Archives, 1964). Though Hartman does not name Bishop Kline, the imprisonment of Anabaptists and development of conscription laws favoring those traditions that he mentions were incidents in which the clergyman was personally involved. Additionally, Hartman needed to go north with General Sheridan because Hartman joined the Mennonite Church during the war and thus was not protected by the draft exemption that only covered members of Anabaptist churches who joined before the legislation passed in 1862.

15. Hartman, “Civil War Reminiscences,” 21.

16. “Personal Mention,” The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, January 1923, 12.

17. See: Virginia Mennonite Conference Archives at Eastern Mennonite University Historical Library, L.J. Heatwole Papers (I-MS-1, mostly Boxes 3, 5.1; LJH Miscellany) and Emmanuel Suter Diaries Collection; Virginia Grove, “Grandfather,” The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, January 1939, 27-28.

18. Hartman, “Civil War Reminiscences,” 18.

19. John C. Wenger and Mary W. Kratz, A.D. Wenger (Harrisonburg, VA: Park View Press, 1961), 4–5, 7. Van Braght, Thieleman J., The Bloody Theatre, or Martyrs’ Mirror, of the Defenceless Christians: who suffered and were put to death for the testimony of Jesus, their Savior, from the time of Christ until the year A. D. 1660. Lampeter Square, Lancaster Co., PA: David Miller, 1837.

20. Julia Spicher Kasdorf, “Mightier than the Sword: Martyrs Mirror in the New World,” The Conrad Grebel Review 31, no. 1 (Winter 2013), https://uwaterloo.ca/grebel/publications/conrad-grebel-review/issues/winter-2013/mightier-sword-martyrs-mirror-new-world

21. Lehman and Nolt, 222-23. Though they make this claim only about Mennonites, the similarities shared between Mennonites and Brethren make the claim likely to pertain to both groups. David A. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2001).

22. Based on feedback I received from Dr. R. Eric Platt, I have revised my conclusions about historical memory at Bridgewater. I think he’s correct in observing they likely informed one another. I hope to continue to explore the extent of that connection as I continue working on this project.

23. I am grateful to Dr. Elesha Coffman for raising this question after I presented my paper at the American Society of Church History. I intend to pursue this question further.

24. Kraybill, 173.

Mennonite Miss Chihuahua Part I: Pageant Politics, Family Tragedy and the Crown

The history of the presence and influence of beauty pageants in Latin America is expansive and has permeated all levels of society, so much so that political and economic actors, including drug cartels, have passively and actively engaged with them, even to the point of handpicking contestant participants, fixing the outcomes, and running former contestants for political office and/or giving them other positions of political influence.

Additionally, pageants in Latin America have long been a stage for political messaging as well as dissent, like in 2007 when Miss Mexico, Rosa Maria Ojeda, came under scrutiny for a dress design that depicted violent scenes of from Mexico’s Cristero War1, including Catholic rebels hanging from posts, which reignited long-standing tensions between Catholic and secular socio-political factions in the national discourse. In 2015, Mexico’s pageant organizers from the media network Televisa boycotted the Miss Universe pageant2 after Donald Trump’s comments referring to Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “drug dealers.” More recently, Alejandra Gavidia, Miss El Salvador, participated in the National Costume Parade in the 2021 Miss Universe pageant wearing an outfit that alluded to the country’s Monument to the Constitution3 complete with a blindfold that read “Not one more disappeared” and a dress with red handprints, highlighting victims of femicide in her country.

In Mexico, beauty pageants are big business and have always been intertwined with political influence, scandal and policy and have been subsidized by the government from the beginning. The Señorita Mexico pageant, the first national level pageant in the country, was established by President Miguel Alemán Valdés4 in 1952 (one year before women gained the right to vote) to promote tourism, but a scandal arising from fraud allegations in 1959 resulted in the pageant being suspended for 5 years, relaunching in 1965. For the last 70, years local, state, national and international pageants have continued to hold close ties to government actors with pageant winners and participants holding influential positions and relationships with the government. In 2021, Miss Universe 1991, Lupita Jones Garay5, who had since become famous actress, producer, and political influencer, was urged by the National Action Party [PAN] to run for governorship of Baja California Norte, which she subsequently lost.

The level of power and influence that pageants hold in Mexico against the backdrop of gender discrimination, family violence and femicide, prompted the Gender Equality Commission [La Comisión para la Igualdad de Género] in 2021 to propose banning the use of public resources, promotion, and subsidies for beauty pageants6 as one of the provisions of the general law on Women’s Access to a Life Free of Violence [la Ley General de Acceso a las Mujeres a una Vida Libre de Violencia]. Jones Garay fired back at the commission7, “Trying to typify these platforms as symbolic violence seems completely wrong to me and unfounded….Teaching her to cultivate her self-esteem, self-confidence and security. Providing her with professional opportunities so that she can stand out in what she is passionate about. Where is the violence?” further highlighting the enduring and complex relationship Mexico has had and continues to have with beauty pageants.

The 1987 the crowning of Kataharine Renpenning, a Mennonite of Russian descent, born and raised in Cuauhtémoc, as Miss Chihuahua, in many ways is a microcosm of the dynamics of beauty pageants in Mexico. Renpenning, who is still widely known as “the Mennonite Miss Chihuahua,” used her fame as a state pageant winner and national pageant participant to launch Keers, a language tourism business in Chihuahua City that focuses primarily on helping children and young adults learn English abroad and to help establish a state governmental agency focused on providing social services and community development in Mennonite communities across the state.

In the late 1980s, Katharine Renpenning had recently completed her coursework in Communications at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez and had returned home to Cuauhtémoc, when she was approached on the street by a man from the local Chamber of Commerce requesting that she participate in the Miss Chihuahua pageant. Despite his promises of charm training and prize money she turned him down saying, “It’s not for me,” and “They never give out the prize money, it’s all lies.”8

After returning to Juarez to present her thesis and receive certification her area of study, she received a phone call from her parents saying the President of the Chamber of Commerce and his wife had come to their house to request that she participate in the Miss Chihuahua pageant stressing that, “It will be very respectful and her mom can always be by her side.” She responded, “No, I don’t want to.”

Time passed, and Katherine completed her certification in Juarez, returning to Cuauhtémoc to accompany her mother to Durango to visit relatives. To her surprise, the Chamber of Commerce came to her house again and asked her to participate in the Miss Chihuahua pageant. The persistence of the Chamber of Commerce prompted Katharine and her mother to wonder if this was an opportunity from God. They began to pray and read through the book of Esther. Renpenning reflected on this experience in 2018 for the Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders Oral History Project (REBB), remarking, “We asked God for his blessing. I said, ‘I’m not going to win. I’m just going to participate.” Her older brother was the only family member who was resistant to the idea, “What are the Dietsch going to say about us today? ‘What is going on with those Renpennings?’

Katharine’s family was used to the tenuous relationship they had with the larger Mennonite community in the region. Her grandparents emigrated to Mexico in the late 1920s from Russia, rather than Canada, and settled in the city of Cuauhtémoc because they were not permitted by church leadership to live within the colonies. Despite the fact that her grandfather became known as a master carpenter in the region, serving the Mestizo and Mennonite communities, and her grandmother, Catalina Schroeder, profiled in “Trajchtmoakas, Parteras, and Midwives: 100 Years of Maternal Care in Chihuahua’s Mennonite Campos”9 was a respected and sought-after midwife and healer, they were largely excluded from the Mennonite community while not being fully accepted in the Mestizo community. Katherine related her experiences to REBB:

There was a lot of discrimination. It was terrible. It was also terrible that the Mennonite church had also rejected us. Well, with the Mennonites you were from the “Mexas” and with “The Mexas” we were, “The Mennonites.” So, you don’t belong to anyone, right?. . . For the women, it was much easier than for my male siblings. So, they also felt the Mennonites’ rejection, it was very hard. Very difficult because physically we looked like them, right? On questions of religious principles and other aspects. And it was difficult sometimes for my older brothers because it came to blows, right? To get in fights with them, or well, attacked when they were walking to school. These attacks-they weren’t just verbal attacks, they were strong attacks and still to this day my brothers have that feeling of “Neither from here, nor from there.” Right? The attacks they suffered from the Mexicans . . . they were really, really, really ugly. At school, for example, I always felt bad because they said that the Mennonites had stolen the land from the Mexicans. And that was, “Oh, well, yes” They would point at me like this, “You stole the land!” In classes, in middle school, elementary school that’s how one would be addressed.10

Despite the inevitable rumblings from the local Mennonite community and mixed acceptance from the Mestizo community, the desire to heal from a family tragedy was what ultimately propelled Katharine to participate in the pageant.  In 1985, Katharine’s brother Tony was killed by a drunk driver while riding his motorcycle. “It was terrible. The whole family was in shock.” Katharine reflected that the pageant offered an opportunity for the family to focus on something other than the tragedy and was the first time that they had felt happy in a long time. She described the preparation for the regional competition:

We asked God for his blessing and we realized that the sign-ups had already closed and we said, “Ok. Well, they’re no longer going to accept us” that’s what we thought, right? . . . I entered and they accepted me. After I was accepted, there were preparations in the gym. They taught us diction, how to pronounce, how to cover ourselves, how to put a pencil between our lips and everything about speaking. In total, we were about 13 or so girls, very beautiful. All were from the northeast region. So, there were girls from Madera, from Guerrero, from some small towns, and it was very important that each municipality for Chihuahua that the girls were prepared and of good character, they always said it wasn’t enough for her to be just beautiful, but also had to be intelligent, know how to speak and everything. Overall, the preparation went well and the day got closer. A girl who hadn’t spoken well won and another girl who hadn’t either got 2nd place and I was left in 3rd place. So, just 1st and 2nd place were going to participate at the state level. But, because I was the other person, they said, “No, you are also going to participate.” “Me too? Well, I’m also going. Ok. That’s good right? That’s no problem for me.11

After receiving 3rd place in the regional competition, she travelled to Juarez to participate in the statewide competition. The event was rocked by scandal and it was alleged that the Institutional Revolutionary Party [PRI] fixed the results for Gabriela Trespalacios, the participant of their choice, which rocketed the scandal all the way to Associated Press syndication which described the pageant in this way:

Police were posted in every aisle and outside the auditorium where the Miss Chihuahua beauty queen was chosen, as the event was marred by rumors that the contest was rigged by the ruling political party.

Rumors had run rampant before and during the contest that the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, had fixed the pageant in this city across the Rio Grande from El Paso Texas, so that Miss Chihuahua City, Gabriela Trespalacios, would win the crown.

Every time she walked on the runway or tried to speak, she was booed and hissed by the crowd of nearly 5,000, but she never lost her composure.

In fact, Katharine Rempenning [sic] Semadeni, 24, of Chuauhtemoc [sic], was crowned Saturday as Senorita Chihuahua. Miss Trespalacios, 22, was first runner-up and Patricia de la Garza, 18, of Delicias, was second runner-up.

Officials had prepared for possible protests from the opposition National Action Party, or PAN, if Miss Chihuahua City were chosen.

PRI controls the municipal governments of Juarez and Chihuahua City and has been undefeated in the federal government for 58 years. Juarez, formerly a PAN stronghold, is the largest city in the state of Chihuahua, and Chihuahua City is the state capital.

PAN claimed that last summer’s municipal elections throughout the state were fixed by PRI, which nearly swept every election. PRI officials denied the accusations.

The crowning of Miss Rempenning [sic] at the University Cultural Center brought cheers from the audience.12

Katherine went on to represent Chihuahua in the national Señorita Mexico pageant,13 where she showcased traditional Mennonite clothing in the opening sequences where participants wear traditional clothing from their home state. Though she was eliminated in the first round of judging, the impacts of her participation in the pageant were long-lasting in her personal life and for the presence and role of the state government Campos Menonitas.  


1. “Miss Mexico ‘war gown’ toned down,” BBC News, 19 April 2007, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/6571061.stm.

2. Tanya Basu, “Mexico Pulls Out of Donald Trump’s Miss Universe Pageant,” Time, 30 June 2015, https://time.com/3942024/mexico-donald-trump-cheryl-burke-miss-universe-nbc-univision/.

3. Javier Maldonado, “Salvedoreña Alejandra Gavidia sacude Miss Universo con mensaje: ‘Un una menos, ni un desaparecido más,’” El Mundo, 11 December 2021, https://diario.elmundo.sv/salvadorena-alejandra-gavidia-sacude-miss-universo-con-mensaje-ni-una-menos-ni-un-desaparecido-mas/.

4. “Señorita México,” Wikipedia Español, https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Se%C3%B1orita_M%C3%A9xico.

5. Salvador Rivera, “Former Miss Universe Could be Mexican Border State’s Next Governor,” 30 January 2021, https://www.borderreport.com/politics/former-miss-universe-could-be-mexican-border-states-next-governor/

6. “Federal Lawmakers Move to Outlaw Beauty Contests,” Mexico News Daily, 4 July 2020, https://mexiconewsdaily.com/news/federal-lawmakers-move-to-outlaw-beauty-contests/

7. “Beauty Pageants May No Longer Exist in Mexico and Here’s Why,” LatinaWatch, 10 July 2020. https://latinawatch.com/news-update/beauty-pageants-ban-mexico/

8. Katharine Renpenning, interview by Abigail Carl-Klassen, March 23, 2018, Interview 34, transcript, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, Winnipeg, MB.  

9. Abigail Carl-Klassen, “Trajchtmoakas, Parteras, and Midwives: 100 Years of Maternal Care in Chihuahua’s Mennonite Campos,” Anabaptist Historians, May 7, 2020, https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2020/05/07/trajchtmoakas-parteras-and-midwives-100-years-of-maternal-care-in-chihuahuas-mennonite-campos/

10. Katharine Renpenning, interview by Abigail Carl-Klassen, March 23, 2018, Interview 34, transcript, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, Winnipeg, MB. 

11. Ibid.

12. “Politics Invades Mexican Beauty Pageant,” Associated Press, 27 April 1987. https://apnews.com/article/ce63225db234b53394b48e62a6bef496

13. Darp Stories, “Señorita México 1987 con Katherine Renpenning (Nuestra Belleza Mexicana Excerpt)” YouTube video, 6 minutes, November 16, 2021, https://youtu.be/hgoCu3rvHo0

Reflections of an Anabaptist Historian on Teaching Faith, Teaching Feminism

My formation was largely at University of Waterloo, in the seventies and eighties where I did all three of my degrees.1 I had barely arrived at Conrad Grebel University College, situated on the campus, when Frank H. Epp signed me up for his initial run at teaching the history of Mennonites in Canada.2 The course fed my desire for a deeper understanding of my Brethren in Christ roots, but I was also searching for knowledge that would enlighten my historical awareness from my perspective as a woman. I sought in vain, at that time, to find my experience represented in any classroom in course content, the texts that we were assigned, the profs in the podiums.

Several years before feminist scholarship began to influence Waterloo’s history department, Frank Epp’s approach opened the way for students to consider their own experience in their study of history. He encouraged us to delve into Mennonite history; he also mentored me as I explored my own Brethren in Christ roots, and came to some understanding of my experience as a young woman who had grown up in that church. Several articles coming out of that work would be published in the denominational paper, The Evangelical Visitor.3

My male profs did support me in my search, but it was really thanks to Wendy Mitchinson and Mary Malone, both who were hired in the 80s, that the potential for women in history became clear. As Professor Marlene Epp has explained, “Wendy was pivotal in my own turn towards women’s history as a transformative way to interpret the past. In her supportive and forthright manner, she gave me, and many other female graduate students, the confidence to pursue a career in academia.”4 This, along with Mary Malone’s forthright re-telling of the past, also opened up my relationship to history.

By the time I graduated with my doctorate in 1990, I dreamed of teaching faith and teaching feminism. I was fortunate with opportunities that opened up – on Waterloo campus, the neighbouring university’s Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, and then in an academic position at Augustana University College. The teaching was varied, but each of these opportunities, in their own way, allowed me to explore what it meant to teach faith and teach feminism.

Fast-forwarding to the turn of the millennium, my vocation had expanded, taking me to ministry and bringing me from the rural setting of Camrose, Alberta, to pastor in the dynamic, multi-cultural and increasingly secularized city of Montreal. Shortly after arriving in Montreal, McGill’s Faculty of Religious Studies (now School of Religious Studies) invited me to teach Canadian Church History and Women in the Christian Tradition. The differences from Waterloo in the seventies and eighties, and Camrose in the nineties, were enormous. My identity had also shifted. I was no longer a tenured professor. I was a minister and Adjunct professor teaching on contract.

As I have explained elsewhere, the Quaker scholar/community activist Parker Palmer has been instrumental in navigating my role in the academy, particularly through his Courage to Teach. Palmer insists that rather than being objective, knowledge is dynamic. The idea that knowledge is the relationship of the subject matter, the professor and the students in a particular classroom, fits my own academic understanding.5 I want to honour my own experiences and those of my students, at the same time generating excitement about the subject matter that we are exploring together.

Laura Swan’s revelation in Forgotten Desert Mothers resonates with me: “I was hardly prepared for the inner revolution that would result when I began to confront the possibility that my own experience had value and meaning,” she revealed.6 If this potential of inner revolution was true for Laura Swan and for me, I also desire it for my students.

The experience of teaching in an array of settings has taught me how important it is for me as professor, to know my environment. Meetings with the administration, careful study of class lists, and a variety of brief written assignments has always helped me get the lay of the land. For instance, in the first class I ask students to write a couple of paragraphs explaining why they are taking the class and what would be helpful for me to know about their learning preferences. I also ask them to read the syllabus carefully, then to tell me what they are most looking forward to, and to ask a couple of questions that they hope will be answered by the end of term.

Being the multicultural and ethnically diverse city that Montreal is, inter-sectionality is evident in a variety of ways. Classrooms include theological students from Montreal School of Theology, which has a century-old arrangement with the School of Religious Studies. Classes embrace Christian, Jewish and Muslim students. They include students who are agnostic or atheist and spiritual seekers.

Classes draw from a variety of disciplines. One term I counted 17 disciplinary perspectives including the sciences in the Women in the Christian Tradition class. That group usually has a large co-hort of students from the Institute of Gender, sexuality, feminism and justice. Indeed, students claim diverse sexual identities.

These classrooms represent a variety of hopes and expectations. Some are primarily concerned with issues of faith. Some simply need a course in Christianity or women’s studies. Some are intentionally studying women. Racialized students need their history to be told. Gay and transgendered students seek a history that represents their experience.

As a professor, it is difficult to meet the varied expectations. My hope is that students will see enough of their experience reflected, that they will be inspired to explore further. My university teaching has never been explicitly about teaching faith; it has been about stimulating curiosity, and increasing knowledge whether it be a “feminist consciousness,” or historical awareness of the variety of players in society and the church. The Jewish feminist historian Gerda Lerner’s Why History Matters and her identification of a feminist consciousness outlined in The Creation of Patriarchy and The Creation of Feminist Consciousness have become central to my teaching of faith and feminism.7

In teaching faith, teaching feminism, I aim to assist students to see through the fog that has shrouded women’s experiences and women’s intellectual partnerships in our understandings of the past, to probe the silences. Lerner says that the major issue for women is their relationship with history, or to be clearer, women’s lack of a history. Teaching faith, teaching feminism means that there are times when it is essential to put women at the centre of enquiry. It is about finding and highlighting role models that can provide for a more balanced view of the past, women in history who can enlighten students on the complexities of the past as it relates to women’s experiences.

Key to this unveiling of history is the attempt to re-establish even if a little bit, the ancient severing of the feminine divine, to give glimpses of the feminine face of our understandings of God. Indeed, as Lerner has noted, women’s search for their connection with the Divine has been at the source of much of the struggle for a feminist consciousness. To come to an understanding of the connection between faith and feminism, it is essential to explore women’s experiences through two thousand years of struggle within an evolving patriarchal tradition, from Biblical times until the present. It is necessary to explore ideas of virginity, sexuality, marriage and motherhood, mysticism, European witch hunts, reform history including Anabaptism, missions and colonization, nineteenth-century reform, healers, the ordination debate and contemporary feminist theology. It is essential to study women’s own words throughout time, looking at what women themselves have said about their own experiences and their views of history, society and God.8

Finally, in teaching faith, and teaching feminism, it is essential for me as professor to insist that students practice putting women at the centre of inquiry, women from their own past and other women, all who have had their part in shaping the historical consciousness. In this way they, and I, can come to a deeper understanding of the relationship between faith and feminism.


1. This article is based on my presentation in “Teaching Faith, Teaching Feminism: Shaping Approaches for Analysis of Gender in Religious History at Public University, Private University, and Seminary Environments,” panel presented at Canadian Society of Church History, June 2021.

2. Three years later, he published Mennonites in Canada, 1786-1920 : the history of a separate people (Toronto: MacMillan, 1974).

3. “Sisters and the Brethren,” Evangelical Visitor (September 25, 1975), 6; “Movements and Missions,” Evangelical Visitor (October 10, 1975), 6; “Social Awareness,” Evangelical Visitor (October 25, 1975), 6. E. Morris Sider’s Nine Portraits: Brethren in Christ Biographical Sketches (Evangel Press, 1981) would feature “Sarah Hoover Bert,” 17-48 and “H. Frances Davidson,” 159-224.

4. https://uwaterloo.ca/arts/news/remembering-distinguished-professor-emerita-wendy-mitchinson

5. Parker Palmer, Courage to Teach, (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 54. See also my “My Anabaptist Heritage and the Classroom,” Anabaptist historians: bringing the Anabaptist past into a digital century https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2019/04/26/my-anabaptist-heritage-and-the-classroom/

6. Laura Swan, The Forgotten Desert Mothers: sayings, lives, and stories of early Christian women, (New York: Paulist Press, 2001), 4.

7. Why History Matters: Life and Thought (NY: Oxford University Press, 1997): 113-28. See also Lerner’s insightful and profound analysis in The Creation of Patriarchy (NY: Oxford University Press, 1986) and The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to Eighteen-seventy. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1993.)

8. Amy Oden, editor, In Her Words: Women’s Writings in the History of Christian Thought (Nashville, Tenn: Abingdon Press, 1994).

Histories of the Postsecular: An Interview with Maxwell Kennel

This interview is about Maxwell Kennel’s new book Postsecular History: Political Theology and the Politics of Time, published by Palgrave Macmillan in November 2021. In the exchanges below, coordinating editor of Anabaptist Historians Joel Nofziger asks how the book stands in relation to Anabaptist history and political theology, and questions how the book relates to the history of memory and the construction of national identity.

Postsecular History advances a critique of certain ways of dividing up time and history. Drawing from the field of political theology, it questions how theological and political ideas combine to form powerful legitimation strategies; and drawing from thinkers who approach the politics of time, it is concerned with how temporal and historical terms are periodized – especially how historical categories of ancient, medieval, and modern, and temporal categories of past, present, and future, are used in value-laden ways.

Joel Horst Nofziger: How did you become concerned with the ways that theopolitical thought creates temporality and historical periods?

Maxwell Kennel: I think that whether we are talking about reading and writing or teaching and research, scholarly activity is always influenced by biography, circumstance, and experience. The construction of historical periods and the configuration of time became important issues for me during my graduate studies, which is a time when the unstructured temporality of ‘study’ tends to replace more common ways of living in time (like the 9:00-5:00 schedule of the work-week).

As I managed my time and mediated between my academic work, family life, and other labor, I noticed that the terms and images I was receiving and using were simultaneously theological and political. One place where this realization came through most clearly was in the factory I worked in during the year between my masters and doctoral degrees. I wrote a personal essay on these experiences called “Factory Time,” which has recently been published in Hamilton Arts & Letters, and I think that it is a good introduction to the underlying concerns and problems that prompted my more abstract inquiries in Postsecular History.

JHN: Postsecular History is a theopolitical text. How do you understand political theology as a field?

MK: I think that, at its best, political theology should be a paradigm or lens through which to understand how concepts that appear to be secular often have very religious histories and structures.

For me, the field of political theology is far more diverse than one might gather from the anthologies that have been published in the past few years by Blackwell and T&T Clark. The term ‘political theology’ need not solely refer to the theological use of political analysis, and there are many scholars who work in political theology without doing so for the benefit of a particular religious tradition. By contrast with approaches that prioritize theology, I feel drawn toward the more pluralistic way of thinking about political theology that I see in the Political Theology Network, which presents its work as a rigorous form of interdisciplinary inquiry that is critical of power and oriented toward justice.

That said, political theology struggles to reckon with the traumatic memory and reception of its founding figures; the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt being the most salient example. Schmitt’s insight was that many modern state concepts are really secularized theological concepts, and the field of political theology has used this narrative of partial secularization to analyze a variety of social and cultural phenomena. But I worry about how enmity, competition, and violent forms of conceptual displacement remain within the discourse on political theology. In Postsecular History I critique the ways that political theology can be taken in by the desire for religion (especially Christianity) to remain in a relationship of competition or enmity with secularity, such that the identification of religious structures within secular concepts would represent another victory for religion over some caricatured image of secularism. In my dissertation I critique an exemplary expression of this pattern in John Milbank’s work, which first constructs an enemy called ‘secularism’ and then uses insights from political theology to position Christianity as the solution to the crises we experience in the ‘postsecular’ world. Instead of being beholden to this competitive displacement of secularity by Christianity, I think political theology is well equipped to think beyond dualistic oppositions between secular and religious ways of thinking, and instead theorize the complex mediations and entanglements between competing normative orders that structure our world.

JHN: In the acknowledgments section that opens the book, you note that you have been influenced by Travis Kroeker’s political theology, building on and from his approach which is “neither Catholic nor Protestant, neither Mennonite nor secularist, neither orthodox nor heterodox.” What does the pursuit of this kind of political theology look like to you?

MK: For a variety of reasons, I am fortunate that Travis Kroeker supervised my dissertation and guided me into political theology. Throughout my time at McMaster University between 2016 and 2021 my entire way of thinking was changed by both his seminars and published works. What I appreciate most about Travis’s work is his critique of possessive desire, and my appreciation for this way of thinking comes through most clearly in Postsecular History when I argue that the prefix ‘post’ cannot adequately fix upon the secular in a way that would allow us to move beyond it.

Travis’s work in Messianic Political Theology and Diaspora Ethics and his booklet Empire Erotics and Messianic Economies of Desire seems to be based on the idea that the desire to possess, control, and dominate things is a key theological problem, and I think it is just as much a problem for political theology as it is for religious studies. But where Travis tends to use Augustinian formulations to name this problem (the libido dominandi of the earthly city), I prefer Hartmut Rosa’s argument for the “uncontrollability [unverfügbarkeit] of the world.” However one puts it, the fact remains that it is not only a matter of ethics whether we are possessive and controlling in our scholarship. It is also a descriptive fact that such forms of possession do not work. One does not need theology or theory to know that the tighter and more anxiously we try to grasp things, the more we lose perspective.

Travis’s approach to political theology evades categorization and makes his work difficult to place in the discourse, but to me that is its benefit. His work inspires me to ask: must we be confined to the distinction between secular and theological approaches to political theology, where theologians confidently assert that we are ‘post-secular’ and secular scholars claim to have a better grasp on their object of study than those who believe in the doctrines they study? This is too simple. For me, political theology stands in a far more unique and generative relation with descriptive and normative approaches to the study of religion because it allows scholars to mediate between proximity and distance from what they study without either the fantasy of value-neutrality or the forcible imposition of normative categories.

Despite its flaws, I see the Anabaptist Mennonite tradition as one that can assist in this kind of critique of possessive desire in ways that have interdisciplinary consequences. Is it possible that a methodology based on the critique of violence could inform the works of scholars across the social sciences and humanities? I think so, and I explore this connection further in the introduction to a special issue of Political Theology that I edited earlier this year.

JHN: In what ways have your choice of topic and methodological approach been shaped by Anabaptist thought?

MK: Very deeply. My Mennonite background and Anabaptist sensibilities motivate my fundamental concern for how violence and other forms of force and coercion inhere in our ways of thinking, speaking, and knowing. This led me to write my dissertation on ontologies of violence in the works of French philosopher Jacques Derrida, Mennonite political theologians, and feminist philosopher of religion Grace M. Jantzen. As I revise my dissertation for publication, I have been reflecting on its relationship with Postsecular History, and I think that underneath the topics and sources of both works is a fundamental concern for the place of peace and justice in a world where the distinction between secularity and religion is inadequate.

In Postsecular History I critique ways of thinking about the category of the postsecular that privilege certain problematic configurations of time and history. I want to reject approaches to the ‘postsecular’ that use the prefix ‘post’ to indicate possession, novelty, freedom, and instrumentality. Rather than possessing the secular so as to move beyond it, and rather than proclaiming a new time after the demise of the secular, and rather than thinking that we can free ourselves from secular or religious histories, and rather than using the prefix ‘post’ as a conceptual instrument to mold the secular into a rejectable image, I argue for less violent ways of thinking about the postsecular that account for the complex mediations and entanglements that the term tends to point toward.

My current postdoctoral project “Critique of Conspiracism” is also underpinned by the same underlying values and questions, specifically concerning how conspiratorial thinking periodizes time and history in theopolitical ways, and how such ways of thinking can lead to violence. It seems to me that conspiracy theories are connected with religions in ways that entangle secularity and religion, and this is nowhere more evident than in the rise of QAnon and its connections with American evangelicalism. Postsecular ways of mediating between religion and secularity are at the heart of conspiratorial thinking, especially if we follow Michael Barkun’s suggestion that conspiracy theories are based on the idea that: “nothing happens by accident, nothing is as it seems, and everything is connected.” My current work focuses on how this formulation serves as a theopolitical way of narrating the relationship between origins and ends, and does so in ways that allow for the justification of violence – for example, the events of January 6th 2021 in the American capitol. I think that the term ‘postsecular’ can helpfully name the confluence of religious and secular ways of thinking within conspiratorial thinking, and my next step in the project is to consider how conspiracy itself might be a secularized theological concept.

JHN: For the purposes of your argument, you settle on a definition of “postsecular” as “the confluence of Christianity, religion, and secularity with critiques of these terms that resist both religious and secular assertions of dominance.” What led you to this understanding?

MK: I conceive of the postsecular as a category that names the confluence of religious, secular, and Christian ways of thinking, but is also inseparable from the normative confrontations and contradictions that arise between these ways of thinking. My argument in Postsecular History is that we are better able to understand how religions and secularities become entangled and mutually critical of each other if we think about the postsecular without inscribing triumphalism into its prefix.

For example, I attempt to think about postsecular entanglements without Christian anxieties that motivate a return to foundations or a desire to assure final ends. Both the image of a return and the invocation of an end are simultaneously theological and political (‘theopolitical’). Messianic returns and teleological ends are theological concepts that also serve as politically usable means of persuasion. By pointing backward and forward in time simultaneously, a ‘return’ knits together tradition and novelty. So too with origins and ends, which are often mediated in persuasive ways by those who call for returns to a golden age or progress toward utopian or apocalyptic futures. All told, I see most ways of periodizing time (past, present, future) and history (ancient, medieval, modern, postmodern) as powerful persuasive techniques that ascribe value to certain terms and not others. Time and history are not given; they are made. What matters is how we engage in that act of making.

JHN: You discuss how “periodization serves as one kind of theopolitical justification narrative that is used within the logic of neoliberalism” and you suggest that “authoritative periodizations assist the neoliberal project in justifying and ordering the world.” The idea that neoliberal periodizations reorder our relationships with the past, present, and future reminds me of two texts on memory.

I am reminded first of Benedict Anderson’s argument in Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1983) that “awareness of being embedded in secular, serial time, with all its implications of continuity, yet ‘forgetting’ the experience of this continuity …engenders the need for a narrative of identity” (265). How does the theopolitical control of defined historical periods interface with nation-building projects of communal memory? I also remember reading Jonathan Tran’s The Vietnam War and Theologies of Memory (London: Blackwell, 2010); especially Tran’s discussion of the possibility of a Eucharistic time where the Lord’s Supper becomes the reordering power rather than authoritarianism.

MK: Yes, I do see the connections that you are pointing towards between the construction of memory, community identity, and national identity.

It makes sense to me that, by his own admission, Benedict Anderson was influenced by Walter Benjamin and Erich Auerbach. When I look at Imagined Communities, I see substantial connections between the imaginative construction of nationhood and the theopolitical periodization of time and history that I write about in Postsecular History. For Anderson, the nation is an “imagined political community” that is “both inherently limited and sovereign” (6), and this limitation is found in the borders that demarcate the nation and prevent others from gaining access to its spatial body. Anderson argues that even “the most messianic nationalists do not dream of a day when all the members of the human race will join their nation,” by contrast with a Christian vision of universal membership (7). He also argues that the nation is imagined as sovereign because it arose during a time when “Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm” (7).

To me this shows how the nation – as a figure and bearer of identity – was born of legitimation crises where religious and secular ways of thinking confronted each other, and its hold on sovereignty is at least partly owed to how nation-building projects use theological and religious modes of persuasion to retain power. In answer to your question, I see theopolitical forms of periodization as usable strategies that nationalists tend to employ in order to keep the image of the nation stable. Although the former is extremely violent compared to the latter, both Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” and Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” use periodizing terms to build national identity. The words ‘back’ and ‘again’ serve to periodize time and history by reaching back into the past and bringing values into the present for the sake of a future. The figural mediations between these terms are powerful because religious visions of history endure in partly secularized forms of nationalism. In the final pages of Imagined Communities, Anderson is critical of narratives that forget the past and create identities out of this amnesia. For him, what cannot be remembered (bodily) “must be narrated,” and this narration occurs in “secular, serial time” that structures both individual life stories and the stories nations tell about themselves (204-205).

I am not as familiar with Jonathan Tran’s work, but when I look at The Vietnam War and Theologies of Memory, I feel a great affinity with its diagnoses of the temporal problems of modernity (as in the section on “The Detemporalization of Time”), but I am not very sympathetic with how Tran positions the Christian Eucharist as a solution to such temporal problems. Again, I appreciate Tran’s diagnosis of the problem of forgetting in his book’s seventh chapter, but I do not think that the Eucharist is the best way of performing the important bodily rituals of remembrance that, for example, one would require in order to heal from trauma. Isn’t the communion table also a site of exclusion where identity is formed by often-violent boundaries between the baptized and unbaptized? Tran’s concept of Eucharistic memory seems somewhat idealized and disconnected from the deep power problems that lie within community identity formation. When thinking about how to remember and work through traumatic events I think that something like the Internal Family Systems model has more potential for promoting healing in our ‘postsecular’ and ‘postreligious’ world.

JHN: One of the challenges you grapple with early on in Postsecular History is that the “postsecular” does not have a readily accepted definition, and in its construction of both the “post” and the “secular” the term promotes problematic forms of periodization. This might be most clearly addressed in your discussion of the Dutch Collegiants in Chapter 3 where you note that “despite its proclamations of novelty and succession – the term ‘postsecular’ cannot make good on the claim of its prefix by placing itself beyond the secular, nor can it successfully exceed or free itself from either its secular or religious history.” Why is it that “postsecular” continues to be a powerful idea despite this problematic assertion?

MK: I think that the main problem with the category of the postsecular, as it is applied to a whole range of ideas and experiences, is that it implies that we can get past the past. The very notion that secular ways of thinking can be placed in the past using the prefix ‘post’ is contrary to what historians do all the time. My argument, in part, is that the postsecular is situated within a history that it attempts to overcome, but cannot overcome because the past remains in the present. And I fear that this contradiction is not the kind of contradiction that results in dialectical tensions that lead to creativity and life. Instead, the aspiration to overcome the secular leads to forms of forgetting and memory loss that prevent the making of living connections between past, present, and future.

JHN: I think your fourth chapter is perhaps the most fascinating. In it, you give a parallel reading of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick alongside a consideration of fanatical Anabaptism—as understood in relation to the Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster. Where did the inspiration come from to make such a juxtaposition?

MK: Well, that’s another interesting accident of history. Initially, the fourth chapter of Postsecular History was supposed to be a revision of my 2019 article in Political TheologyMüntzer, Taubes, and the Anabaptists” where I trace Anabaptist connections within Jacob Taubes’ Occidental Eschatology. But due to copyright problems I was forced to remove it at the last minute. However, in the early months of 2020, before the pandemic began in force, I was also auditing two graduate seminars. The first was Travis Kroeker’s seminar on Augustine’s City of God and Melville’s Moby Dick, and the second was Mike Driedger’s seminar on fanaticism at Brock University. The material I wrote while sitting in on these seminars was influenced by my work on the Postsecular History manuscript, and I began asking questions about how fanaticism figures in Melville’s novel and relates to how literary works periodize their narrative unfolding. Luckily, when I had to remove the middle chapter of the book, I had material from both sets of my seminar notes that fit together and meshed with the book’s argument, while also serving as a letter of gratitude to my teachers.

JHN: In conclusion, what would you say the contribution of Postsecular History is for historians and scholars in political theology?

MK: Jakob Burckhardt writes in his Reflections on History that “the philosophy of history is a centaur, a contradiction in terms [contradictio in adjecto] for history co-ordinates, and hence is unphilosophical, while philosophy subordinates, and hence is unhistorical.” Burckhardt argues that the problem with philosophy and history is that both are given to the idea that “our time is the consummation of all time” such that “the past may be regarded as fulfilled in us.” I suppose that my work in Postsecular History is focused on moving away from both coordination and subordination, toward richer and more textured ways of mediating between temporal and historical terms that do not abandon the desire for historical and temporal terms to facilitate movements from promise to fulfilment.

Part of this effort to find better ways of mediating between temporal and historical terms requires that we both understand the limitations of thinking in relation to origins and ends, and that we do not abandon the project of drawing promising and fulfilling connections between origins and ends. That is why I want to close with a quotation that followed me throughout the writing of this book but never fit well within its pages. In his book on Dostoevsky, Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin writes that

nothing conclusive has yet taken place in the world, the ultimate word of the world and about the world has not yet been spoken, the world is open and free, everything is still in the future and will always be in the future.

In the case of postsecular life where religions and secularities intermingle and the past returns ceaselessly in the present, I think it is important to hold things open and resist finality wherever it is found. My attempt to provide an historically attentive approach to the concept of the postsecular is part of this effort, and I hope it will cause its readers to pause and question the periodizing divisions of this age. But this pause should be informed by the topic of the concluding chapter of Postsecular History, which is waiting. I think that one remedial strategy for the temporal crises of our time – both the acceleration of time and the decay of its measures – is to cultivate a form of waiting that is actively engaged in the undoing of violent forms of periodization. For this I turn to the amazing work of German feminist Christian theologian Dorothee Sölle, whose mantra in her essay on waiting is “this is not it.” That’s what I think is the contribution of the book. Simply to say, with Bakhtin that the final word on the world has not been spoken, and with Sölle that the present state of things is not yet as it should be, in so many ways.

Through the lens of J. Harold Housman

EMU Special Collections was recently given a fascinating collection of digitized slides from the family of Dr. J. Harold Housman (1928-2009). Housman was a 1949 graduate of EMC who became a doctor and spent many years doing medical work in Tanzania, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Nigeria. 

These photographs, taken during his time at EMC, give a vivid glimpse into life at the college and Park View area. I hope you enjoy these images and if you see any one or any place you recognize, please share in the comments!

A mid-1940s view of EMC’s campus, prior to the construction of Northlawn (built in 1948) the Student Center/University Commons (built in 1957) or Hartzler Library (built 1971).
Martins Store, now used by the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding

The College Shoppe on Mt. Clinton Pike at the intersection of Park Road. It is now a private residence. 

J. Harold Housman was a keen pilot who got his pilot’s license at the age of 16. This photo was taken at the Hartman Airfield located on Chicago Avenue around where the Family Dollar now sits.

 

1947 Mixed Chorus
D. Ralph Hostetter supervises J. Harold Housman (right) and another student as they work on specimens.

J. Mark Stauffer

A. Don Augsburger

Students piled in a truck headed for a day out in the mountains

Sledding on the hill

Southern Anabaptist Colleges and Civil War Memory: Bridgewater College

Regina Wenger

Early next year, I’m presenting a paper at the American Society of Church History on a panel titled “Competing Identities: Denominational Higher Education in the American South.” In the literature on American higher education, the examination of denominational schools, particularly those in the South, remains understudied. My co-panelists and I hope to explore the impact of geography and religious affiliation on single-sex and co-educational colleges in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. My paper, tentatively titled “Embers of the ‘Burning’: Shenandoah Valley Anabaptists, Higher Education, and Civil War Legacy,” will investigate the postbellum tensions between nonresistance and the memory of the Civil War at two Anabaptist colleges in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley: Bridgewater College and Eastern Mennonite University. The former a school started by the Church of the Brethren, the latter a Mennonite institution. Founded in 1880 and 1917, respectively, many of the schools’ founders carried personal or family memories related to the destruction caused by the war. While the conference paper will address both schools, in the post I’m going to take an initial dive into the sources and offer some preliminary conclusions about the interplay between nonresistance, Civil War memory, and institutional life at Bridgewater College.

Elder John Kline and the Virginia Brethren’s interest in higher education emerged on the eve of the Civil War. Their early efforts indicate they possessed an increasing openness to the value of education for the benefit of the church. In 1857, the Yearly Meeting of the Brethren took action to allow members to advocate for higher education in accordance with “gospel principles.”1 Two years later, Brethren leadership spearheaded the creation of Cedar Grove Academy in the northern Rockingham County town of Broadway. It was the first Brethren institution for higher education. The Academy persisted through the Civil War, but closed soon after the conclusion of the conflict. Elder John Kline proved instrumental to its founding, gathering supporters, and providing the land for the school.2

As a local leader, Kline also played an important role in the Virginia Brethren’s response to the looming Civil War. Acknowledging the precarity of the nonresistant position, he and other church leaders worked diligently for provisions for Anabaptists in Virginia and Confederate conscription legislation. Though succeeding in that aim rather quickly with Virginia law, Confederate legislation threatened to nullify their efforts. Only after a brief imprisonment for noncompliance and the advocacy of Virginia political and military officials did Kline and other Anabaptist leaders obtain allowances from the Confederate governmen in October 1862 for Anabaptists to opt out of military service.3 Kline’s leadership in the Brethren community persisted, but hostility toward dissenting Anabaptists amped up as the war leeched empathy from their Shenandoah Valley neighbors.4 Unlike Anabaptists in neighboring Augusta County, Brethren and Mennonites in Rockingham County largely opposed secession, while many Anabaptists in both counties also supported the Confederacy through agricultural commerce.5 Elder Kline’s prominence, as well as his anti-slavery position and Union sympathies, made him a target for violence as the war escalated community tensions. Confederate loyalists murdered Kline near his home in Broadway on June 15, 1864, for his positions, but also in response to his frequent trips north on church business and alleged engagement in smuggling Anabaptists evading conscription into Union territory.6 Fifty years after his death, a Brethren historian described Kline as a “martyr” assassinated as part of a “deeply laid scheme” by those that despised his goodness and faithfulness to God.7 Only a few months after Kline’s murder, a second tragedy swept through the Anabaptist community in Rockingham County.

Union General Phillip Sheridan’s scorched earth campaigns in the Shenandoah Valley during the fall of 1864 indiscriminately scarred its residents, regardless of religious affiliation. The Valley served as a prime agricultural region for the Confederacy, so cutting off supplies to the South proved essential to Union victory. “The Burning,” as Sheridan’s autumn inferno came to be called, reduced the barns, mills, and homes of Anabaptists and their neighbors to ashes, with no regard for professed loyalty.8 The effects of the destruction continued to smolder in the Valley long after the fires ended. James Lehman and Steve Nolt conclude, “Never before—or since—had Mennonites [and other Anabaptists] in the United States experienced such collective property destruction.”9 The trauma caused by the Burning lingered after the war as the Union denied the claims of most Anabaptists who tried to recover assets lost in the conflagration due to their commercial support of the Confederacy.10 Such destruction also delayed any efforts to re-establish Brethren higher education in the Shenandoah Valley.

Fifteen years after the war’s end, the school that would be Bridgewater College started in southern Rockingham County. The years following the war necessitated rebuilding and a reorientation of collective identity. Lehman and Nolt note that, like many of their neighbors, Anabaptists in the reconstructing South chose to value the repair of national and local relationships over advocating for the rights of African Americans, which historian David Blight chronicled in his book Race and Reunion.11 Bridgewater College started as a joint effort between Daniel C. Flory, educated at the Brethren Juniata College, and Virginia Brethren leaders in 1880. Originally called Spring Creek Normal School, Flory’s co-educational institution maintained its ties to earlier Brethren education while also charting a new path. The first board included John J. Bowman, a Brethren layman who helped found the Cedar Grove Academy, as well as Walter B. Yount, who would become Bridgewater’s first president in 1895.12 Known as the Virginia Normal School in 1882, the institution settled in Bridgewater seven years later and took its eponymous name. Literary societies flourished at the normal school and later the college, as did sports.13 The institution experienced hardships in its early years, but it matured under the leadership of President Yount (1895-1910).14 Records produced in the years of his administration provide the first clear picture of the legacy of the Civil War at Bridgewater College.

The first printed Bridgewater College history owes its origins to a student society memorializing the Confederacy. A December 1902 program of Bridgewater’s Virginia Lee literary society produced pieces for the student periodical, the Philomathean Monthly, and eventually became a1905 alumni-produced institutional history titled Bridgewater College: Its Past and Present.15 One of the two societies formed in 1897 when the Philomathean Society grew too large, the Virginia Lee Society influenced student life and periodicals into the 1930s.16 The organization embedded remembrances of the southern cause into its activities. Selecting Confederate gray as their color, the Society celebrated Robert E. Lee’s birthday annually, adorned their space with his likeness, and hosted speakers who interacted or served with him.17 Examining the life and work of the Society’s founding president, John W. Wayland provides a glimpse into the endurance of Lost Cause memory and its connections to Bridgewater.

Born in Shenandoah County in 1872, John Walter Wayland started attending Bridgewater in the late 1890s, graduating in 1899. He presented the name “Virginia Lee” for the Society to honor the Lee family and the inaugural state that produced them. Wayland also composed the lyrics to the Society’s song.18 Upon his graduation from Bridgewater, Wayland served as Editor-In-Chief of Bridgewater College: Its Past and Present and its 1930 alumni-produced history: Fifty Years of Educational Endeavor. By the latter work’s publication, he had earned a PhD in History from the University of Virginia in 1907 and embarked on a prolific career as a professor, administrator, and author.19 He also spent a significant portion of his adult life ordained in the Brethren Church. He died in Harrisonburg, Virginia in 1962. A brief analysis of the Civil War/Reconstruction sections of one of Wayland’s histories illustrates how he viewed the conflict and rebuilding as a Virginia Brethren and historian.

In A History of Rockingham County (1912), Wayland couched his assessment of the conflict and rebuilding in a measured tone. While he did characterize Reconstruction as a failure, only once did he deploy the term “carpetbaggers” to describe northerners presence in the South.20 Wayland mentions that 418 African Americans registered for the 1867 election, and found their civic participation indicative of “why the process of reconstruction was accomplished [in Rockingham County] with so little disturbance.”21 The relatively small numbers of enslaved African Americans living in the County during the antebellum period, as well as the its proximity to the free state of West Virginia, likely contributed a smaller free Black population during Reconstruction. This context may have also influenced Wayland’s conclusion that reunification was an easy process.22 A History of Rockingham County contains a section titled: “Some Interesting Incidents.” Of the four events mentioned that occurred during the Civil War, the death of John Kline was one. Surrounding this account of “a martyr to duty and the work of peace,” Wayland placed reports of the death and memorial of Confederate General Turner Ashby, the ingenuity of General Stonewall Jackson, and the innocence of Confederate scouts in the murder of Union Lieutenant. John R. Meigs, an incident that helped spark General Sheridan’s burning of the Valley.23 The inclusion of Kline’s murder points to its importance in the mind of the book’s Virginia Brethren author, but its location points to a shift in how Bridgewater College through one of its notable alumni recalled the Civil War.

The trials of the Brethren during the Civil War and the civil religion of the Lost Cause formed two district streams of memory with no dissonance between them. The prevalence of the Lost Cause at the college and in Wayland’s writings is not altogether unsurprising given its pervasiveness in the South. Charles Reagan Wilson argues in Baptized in Blood that, as the civil religion of the South, the Lost Cause inextricably bound together southern culture and interpretations of history in ways that made it distinct from the northern civil religion. “Southerners interpreted the Civil War as demonstrating the height of Southern virtue, as a moral-religious crusade against the atheistic North…. The antebellum and wartime religious culture evolved into a Southern civil religion, based on Christianity and regional history.”24 Thus the religious life at Bridgewater, grounded in service to the nonresistant Brethren church and community, co-existed alongside a student organization memorializing the heroics of Robert E. Lee. Likewise, John W. Wayland remembered Elder John Kline for his nonresistance and faithfulness to God, rather than as an individual who opposed slavery and suffered death for his supposed actions for the Federal cause and Union sympathies. Couching an early supporter of Brethren education as a religious rather than political martyr allowed Wayland to place Kline alongside such venerated local Confederates as Turner Ashby and Stonewall Jackson. All these men could be celebrated for their faithfulness and dedication. The nonresistant convictions and wartime experiences of the Shenandoah Valley Brethren did not prevent the presence of the Lost Cause at Bridgewater College, but rather they dwelt alongside one another as influential, but mutually exclusive, historical memories.

As I develop this project, I’ll investigate further these initial conclusions about Bridgewater and put them into conversation with my exploration of Civil War memory at the slightly younger Mennonite school that became Eastern Mennonite University. What similarities and differences existed between Brethren and Mennonite historical narratives about the Civil War? How did those memories manifest in the institutional life of each school? It will be fascinating to continue to study the interplay between historical memory and Anabaptist theology, alongside attention to their roles in developing higher education in the South.


1. Paul Haynes Bowman, Brethren Education in the Southeast (Bridgewater, VA: Bridgewater College, 1955), https://digitalcommons.bridgewater.edu/brethren_education_southeast/1, 27. See also: Kenneth M. Shaffer, “Higher Education Institutions of the Church of the Brethren,” in Religious Higher Education in the United States: A Source Book, ed. Thomas Hunt and James Carper (New York: Routledge, 1996), 279–295, 279-281.

2. Shaffer, 282.

3. For a summary of this process see: Lehman, James O., and Steven M. Nolt. Mennonites, Amish, and the American Civil War (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007), ProQuest Ebook Central, 63-66. In his analysis of Confederate substitution in Rockingham County, John Sacher notes the statistically higher rates of substitution, which he primarily attributes it to the concentration of Anabaptists in the community. John Sacher, “The Loyal Draft Dodger?: A Reexamination of Confederate Substitution,” Civil War History 67, no. 2 (2011): 153–178, 161-165.

4. Lehman and Nolt. 56.

5. Lehman and Nolt, 58-60, 190-193, 199-200.

6. Lehman and Nolt, 189.

7. Daniel H. Zigler, History of the Brethren in Virginia (Elgin, IL: Brethren Publishing House, 1914).143-144.

8. For more detailed accounts of Sheridan’s campaigns see: Lehman and Nolt, Chapter 10; John L. Heatwole, The Burning: Sheridan’s Devastation of the Shenandoah Valley (New York: Rockbridge Publishing, 1998); and Jeannie Cummings Harding, “Retaliation with Restraint: Destruction of Private Property in the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign” (Masters Thesis, James Madison University, 2013), https://commons.lib.jmu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1241&context=master201019.

9. Lehman and Nolt, 199.

10. Lehman and Nolt. 226-227.

11. Lehman and Nolt, 222-223. Though they make this claim only about Mennonites, the similarities shared between Mennonites and Brethren make it claim likely to pertain to both groups. David A. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2001).

12. Bowman, 28; Francis Fry Wayland, Bridgewater College: The First Hundred Years 1880-1980 (Lawrenceville, VA: Brunswick Publishing Corporation, 1993). 11-12.

13. Francis Fry Wayland, 36-37.

14. He was named president in 1895, but held the leadership title “Chairman of the Faculty” beginning in 1892.

15. John W. Wayland, ed., Bridgewater College: Its Past and Present (Elgin, IL: Brethren Publishing House, 1905), 36.

16. Francis Fry Wayland, 91.

17. Francis Fry Wayland, 88-89.

18. Francis Fry Wayland, 87, 89.

19. In recognition of his educational influence, Rockingham County Schools opened a school named after Wayland in 1964. It still bears his name and is in operation today.

20. John W. Wayland, A History of Rockingham County, Virginia (Dayton, VA: Ruebush-Elkins Company, 1912), 172.

21. John W. Wayland, Rockingham County, 163.

22. Sacher, 160-161.

23. John W. Wayland, Rockingham County, 433-435.

24. Charles Regan Wilson, Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865–1920 (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1980), 7-8.

Hitler’s Mennonite Voters

Ben Goossen

In May 1933, Mennonites delivered Adolf Hitler the only country-wide majority he achieved in an open election. Four months after Hitler became Chancellor of Germany at the head of a short-lived coalition with another party, the Nazis won an outright majority during elections in a nearby microstate known as the Free City of Danzig. Located in what is today northern Poland, Danzig had a substantial Mennonite population. Mennonite ballots pushed the Nazis over the 50 percent threshold in the popular vote.1 A parliamentary majority allowed the Nazis to rule Danzig alone, and no fair state-wide elections were held again.

Would Mennonite opposition have prevented the Nazi Party from violently seizing full control of Danzig and turning the city into a loyal puppet state for Hitler? Assuredly not. Events surrounding the burning of the Reichstag in Germany demonstrate the Nazis’ willingness to manufacture crises to sideline their elected colleagues and to move toward single-party dictatorship. But then again, to envisage a world in which Danzig’s Mennonites did not widely welcome Nazism is to conjure an alternative reality indeed.2

As 1.5 percent of Danzig’s population, Mennonites punched above their weight. This historically pacifist Christian church disproportionately influenced Nazi rule in the Free City. During World War II, members became enmeshed in the Holocaust, staffing concentration camps and using Jewish slave labor on their farms and in their factories. Prominent Nazis believed most Mennonites were “Aryan.” They planned to settle tens of thousands from the USSR and the Americas on land in Eastern Europe stolen from Jews, Poles, and others. “[I]t would be of great propagandistic importance for the Mennonites overseas,” one SS officer wrote, “if one could deal very generously with the Mennonites in Danzig and their desires.”3

Hitler entered Danzig on September 19, 1939, early in World War II. His visit celebrated the Free City’s return to German sovereignty and the end of its status as a nominally independent Nazi puppet state. While in Danzig, Hitler spoke about Mennonites with Nazi politician Walter Neufeldt. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

After the Third Reich collapsed, Mennonite leaders from Danzig falsely portrayed themselves as victims of fascist persecution. Bruno Ewert, elder of the Heubuden church, disingenuously claimed: “The Jewish religion especially was severely attacked by the party, and since Christianity developed within the Jewish religion, it too, was cast aside.”4 Ewert failed to mention that like most of Danzig’s top Mennonite faith leaders, he himself had joined the Nazi Party. At the height of the Holocaust, in fact, he took advantage of Hitler’s machinery of death to grow church membership. Ewert performed baptisms at a site where Nazi doctors had killed children with disabilities. Murder helped make Mennonitism under Hitler’s rule.


The Free City of Danzig was a bizarre byproduct of the First World War. The city itself—today Gdańsk—had been founded in the tenth century. It was an old Hanseatic trading city on the Baltic Sea, humming with north European ship traffic and flush with products from its farming hinterland in the fertile Vistula River delta. Danzig’s population grew by the early twentieth century to around 400,000 people, ninety-five percent of whom spoke German. At the end of the First World War, the new state of Poland desired Danzig as a port, despite its strong German ties. The independent “Free City” emerged as a compromise.

Mennonites had inhabited the area since the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. They had originally come as religious refugees from the Netherlands. The ex-priest Menno Simons had promoted a radical embrace of Biblical teachings that challenged the authority of Catholic and Lutheran rulers alike. His followers practiced adult baptism. They refused to swear oaths. And they did not spread their faith with violence. As thousands faced imprisonment and death in West Europe, refugees found toleration in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. They built thriving farming communities across the Vistula Delta.

Between the World Wars, around 13,000 Mennonites lived along the Baltic Sea in nineteen congregations. The creation of Poland and the Free City of Danzig after World War I divided this population, which had previously been entirely within German borders. This map shows locations of Mennonite settlement in and near the Free City of Danzig. The Free City’s territory included 6,000 Mennonites, organized into six rural congregations as well as one urban church in the city of Danzig proper. Map adapted from GAMEO.

Four hundred years later, the Mennonites who helped to bring Nazism to Danzig were a theologically transformed group. Prior to the 1933 election, one preacher praised National Socialism to a ministerial assembly as “the only party which we as Mennonites can support.”5 This viewpoint would have been anathema to this preacher’s own ancestors. Church historian C. Henry Smith, observing from across the Atlantic, rightly assessed that Danzig’s Mennonites strayed from their roots. “Menno Simons would find himself ill at ease, today, among his namesakes,” Smith wrote, “were he to return to his familiar haunts around the Baltic.” A time-travelling Menno would soon be “in all likelihood, in a concentration camp.”6

Two factors made Danzig’s Mennonites particularly susceptible to Hitler’s project. First, members saw themselves as part of a global religious denomination they viewed as vulnerable to atheist communism. Since the eighteenth century, thousands of Mennonites had emigrated from the Danzig area to Imperial Russia. Although nationalist pressure convinced Danzig’s Mennonites to abandon pacifist teachings, they retained ties to pacifist coreligionists abroad. After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Mennonites in the new Soviet Union faced hardships. Their relatives in Danzig welcomed Hitler’s anti-Bolshevism and his antisemitism. The Führer blamed Soviet atrocities on a fictional cabal he labeled “Judeo-Bolshevism.”

Racial scientists considered Mennonites to be unusually pure specimens of Aryanism. Anthropologist Friedrich Keiter studied 386 members—including these three women—in or near the Free City of Danzig in 1931, helping integrate local Mennonites into racial scholarship already before Hitler’s rise to power. Source: Keiter, Rußlanddeutsche Bauern, Tafel VIII.

Second, Nazism appealed to Danzig Mennonites’ sense of aggrieved nationalism. Those who had given up pacifism and chosen not to emigrate adopted a strong German identity. They lamented Germany’s defeat in the First World War, and they reviled the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which became a nationalist punching bag. This treaty assigned guilt for World War I to Germany. It required steep reparations. And it split Danzig from Germany. The nineteen Mennonite congregations in eastern Germany, with 13,000 attendees, had once formed a united group. Versailles divided them between Germany, Poland, and the Free City (where 6,000 lived). Mennonite farmers further resented Danzig’s customs union with Poland.

During the 1930s, Mennonites became involved at every level of the Nazi Party in Danzig. Arthur Greiser, president of the Danzig Senate, reportedly praised Mennonites for having been his “fellow comrades in the years of struggle [before 1933].”7 One Mennonite activist, Otto Andres, became the second-highest-ranking Nazi in Danzig.8 Mennonite men joined the paramilitary SA and the SS. Their mothers, wives, and sisters populated Nazi women’s organizations. As was typical of other religious groups, many top officers probably left the church, but rank-and-file members usually retained church affiliation.9 Mennonite faith leadership became deeply Nazified. Party members headed five of the seven churches in the Free City.10


Nazi-controlled Danzig remained technically separate from the Third Reich until the outbreak of World War II. On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded neighboring Poland on false pretenses. Hitler declared Danzig’s reunification with the Reich, and on September 19, he triumphantly entered the formerly free city. Danzig’s predominantly German population welcomed the Führer and cheered their merger with Germany. After delivering a speech, Hitler met with local Nazi leadership in Danzig’s party headquarters. The conversation apparently touched on Mennonites. The Führer reportedly requested more materials about the faith, exclaiming: “Future founders of religions should take Mennonite traits as examples!”11

What impressed Hitler about Mennonites? The brief discussion in Danzig in 1939 surely did not highlight the faith’s historic pacifism. No transcript of this encounter exists, but we can surmise what the Führer likely heard by analyzing how religious leaders publicly depicted their faith in other instances. The main strategy church officials deployed to ingratiate themselves with top Nazis involved claiming racial purity. Mennonites had supposedly kept their bloodlines “Aryan” through centuries of intermarriage. German racial scientists had tested Mennonite populations in Danzig and agreed with this assessment.12 Faith leaders further sought to prove heritage by harvesting centuries-old data from church record books.13

Mennonites’ privileged racial status drew them into Nazi crimes. Hitler waged World War II as a race war. His soldiers conquered vast swaths of Eastern Europe to provide expanded “living space” for the German people, whom the Nazis considered a “master race.” The invaders and local collaborators seized property from Poles, Jews, and others. They distributed this plunder to members of the German racial elite and forced non-Germans into subservient positions. In Danzig, many Mennonites benefitted from robbery and slavery. For instance, SS officers at the Stutthof concentration camp, built in 1939, formed an entire labor commando with 500 inmates to serve a Mennonite arms manufacturer, Gerhard Epp.14

Leadership of the Mennonite-owned Epp Firm that leased hundreds of Jews and other slave laborers from the Stutthof concentration camp to produce munitions for war. Owner Gerhard Epp is seated at center. Source: Rehaag, ed., Ostseebad Stutthof, 114.

Danzig Mennonites also contributed to Nazi conquests and rule further east. Numerous prominent Nazi administrators in Eastern Europe hailed from Danzig, and faith leaders could use personal connections to pursue their interests in neighboring regions. Church delegations met with Nazi officials in the new Wartheland province, helping to ease the integration of Mennonites from occupied Poland into the Nazi order.15 When Hitler invaded the USSR in 1941, Danzig’s Mennonites especially watched developments in Ukraine.16 35,000 Mennonites remained in the area. Two years later as the Red Army advanced, most of these evacuated westward. An SS officer with Danzig ties oversaw their resettlement from Ukraine.17

The SS temporarily housed two large groups of Mennonites from Ukraine in former mental institutions near Danzig. Nazis had killed 4,000 patients at these facilities, known as Konradstein and Konitz. Among the victims were 550 children with disabilities transported to Konradstein for poisoning by 1943.18 The Mennonite resettlers knew that previous inhabitants had been murdered.19 Church leaders from Danzig welcomed these refugees’ arrival. They worked closely with Nazi administrators to provide spiritual care. In May 1944, dozens of young people from Konradstein traveled to the Heubuden church for baptismal training. Elder Bruno Ewert inducted them into the faith a week later in a hall of the mental institution.20

Bruno Ewert (second row, seventh from left) baptized these forty-seven Mennonite refugees from Ukraine at the former Konradstein mental institution, May 28, 1944. Source: Nachlaß Ernst Crous, Folder: Briefw. 1944, MFS.

Only one Mennonite from the Danzig region is known to have been imprisoned for resisting Nazism. The eldest son of a well-established Mennonite family, Hermann Epp had been arrested two months before Ewert baptized forty-seven young people in Konradstein. Epp’s attitudes toward Nazism were unusual in his family and among Danzig Mennonites generally. He had a history of communist sympathies and close friendships with Jews. In 1943, when his first child developed disabilities, Nazi officials forcibly took and euthanized the infant, possibly perpetrating this murder at Konradstein. Epp’s public bitterness landed him in the Stutthof concentration camp. Eventually released, he survived the Third Reich’s collapse.21


World War II’s end heralded the demise of the Mennonite communities around Danzig. In the last days of the war, much of Danzig’s population began a hectic evacuation westward. As Soviet forces advanced, Mennonites and others fled by ship to Denmark or through the countryside across pre-war borders with Germany. Bruno Ewert later recalled this time of terror. The evacuees “were plundered, the women of all ages were dishonored, many were taken captive, others suffered affliction and death. Families were brutally separated.”22 Ewert blamed Poles and Soviets for German suffering. He did not mention SS-led death marches from Stutthof, nor that Jewish deaths erased evidence of forced labor for Mennonites.23

A North American church aid organization, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), helped Mennonites from Danzig resettle in new homes. None wished or would have been allowed to return to their former residences, now located in the Soviet-dominated country of Poland. In 1945, MCC’s commissioner for refugee matters, C.F. Klassen of Canada, toured Europe to find displaced Mennonites. In Denmark, he met Bruno Ewert. This former elder of the Heubuden church had been working with fellow faith leaders to contact thousands of Mennonites refugees, and Ewert shared his list with Klassen.24 Over the next decade, MCC helped resettle thousands of Danzig Mennonites to Canada, Uruguay, and West Germany.

MCC leaders kept quiet about the Danzig Mennonites’ deep ties to Nazism. Aid workers privately called the number of former Nazis among the refugees “amazing.”25 The organization nevertheless sought to reintegrate this group into the international faith community. Before a Mennonite World Conference in the US in 1948, staff selected four delegates from Germany. They had difficulty finding any clergy from Danzig, however, who could meet visa qualifications.26 Previous Nazi Party membership precluded both short visits and emigration. MCC worked with faith leaders in North America who successfully lobbied Canada to accept Mennonite refugees from Danzig, beyond “the few who are not party members.”27

The history of Hitler’s Mennonite voters should be of substantial interest today. These Christians came from a tradition that professed peaceful coexistence. By the 1930s, they had become rabidly nationalist and antisemitic. Mennonite voters helped bring the Nazi Party to power in the Free City of Danzig, and when Hitler’s expansionism unified this territory with the Third Reich during World War II, they joined in the process of expropriation and genocide. Religious leaders claimed resistance and persecution after the war, but we can count the number of Danzig Mennonites jailed for anti-Nazi activities on one finger. Dealing openly and seriously with this past remains a task for Mennonites over seventy-five years later.

Ben Goossen is a fellow with the American Historical Association and the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, published with Princeton University Press. Thanks to Danuta Drywa, Arnold Neufeldt-Fast, Frank Peachey, Alain Epp Weaver, and Madeline J. Williams for help with this essay.


1. Due to Danzig’s parliamentary system, the Nazi win on May 28, 1933, was more substantial (38 out of 72 seats in the Volkstag) than indicated by their razor-thin popular vote majority, which exceeded the 50% mark by only 267 ballots. Additional research is required to understand precisely how Mennonites contributed to the electorate. If they were registered at the same rate as other Danzigers, voted at the same rate, and chose parties in the same percentages as their neighbors, then Mennonites would have had about 3,438 registered voters; 3,230 would have voted; and 1,647 would have chosen the Nazis. However, the Nazi Party’s strong rural showing in Danzig suggests that these estimates may be low, a possibility affirmed by contemporary observers: “the overwhelming majority of German Mennonites were always nationally oriented and welcomed Hitler’s project with open arms.” Benjamin Unruh to D. Hege, July 28, 1933, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 2, folder 8, Mennonitische Forschungsstelle, Bolanden-Weierhof, Germany (hereafter MFS); “The majority of Mennonites welcomed the National Socialist seizure of power on January 30, 1933, in the German Reich and in May of the same year in Danzig.” Hermann Epp, “Die Westpreussischen Gemeinden von 1933 bis zum Untergang,” Der Mennonit 1, no. 1 (1948): 4.

2. On the Free City of Danzig, see Christoph Kimmich, The Free City: Danzig and German Foreign Policy, 1919-1934 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968); Herbert Levine, Hitler’s Free City: A History of the Nazi Party in Danzig, 1925-1939 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973); Dieter Schenk, Danzig 1930-1945: Das Ende einer Freien Stadt (Berlin: Ch. Links, 2013). The topic of Mennonites in the Free City of Danzig deserves more attention from historians. Important treatments include Gerhard Rempel, “Mennonites and the Holocaust: From Collaboration to Perpetuation,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 84, no. 4 (2010): 507-508, 512-525; Steven Schroeder, “Selective Memory: Danziger Mennonite Reflections on the Nazi Era, 1945-1950,” in European Mennonites and the Holocaust, ed. Mark Jantzen and John Thiesen (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2020), 307-318. For works on Mennonites in the Danzig region prior to World War I, see Peter J. Klassen, Mennonites in Early Modern Poland and Prussia (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009); Mark Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers: Nation, Religion, and Family in the Prussian East, 1772–1880 (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010).

3. Gerhard Wolfrum suggested this language to Mennonite leader Benjamin Unruh in the spirit of advising Unruh how best to phrase a letter the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, with a specific request. Quoted in Benjamin Unruh to Gustav Reimer, January 12, 1944, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 4, folder 21, MFS.

4. Bruno Ewert, “Four Centuries of Prussian Mennonites,” Mennonite Life 3 (April 1948): 15-16. Other Mennonite leaders from Danzig and nearby regions made similar exculpatory ex post facto claims, for instance falsely alleging that church leaders took “a very determined stand… against the advocates of anti-Semitism.” Emil Händiges, “The Catastrophe of the West Prussian Mennonites,” Mennonite Quarterly Review, 24, no. 2 (1950): 126-127.

5. Quoted in Ewert, “Four Centuries of Prussian Mennonites,” 15. The views of this preacher, Gerhard Fast of Heubuden, appear to have been shared generally by Danzig’s Mennonite clergy. A conference of faith leaders from Danzig and nearby regions sent a telegram to Hitler on September 10, 1933, expressing “deepest thanks for the mighty revolution, which God has granted our nation through your energy.” Aron Mekelborger, “Bericht über die 4. Allgem. Westpr. Konferenz in Tiegenhagen am 10. September 1933,” Mennonitische Blätter, October 1933, 101.

6. C. Henry Smith, The Story of the Mennonites (Berne, IN: Mennonite Book Concern, 1941), 345.

7. Quoted in Benjamin Unruh “Bericht über Verhandlungen im Warthegau im März 1944,” March 30, 1944, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 4, folder 21, MFS. On Greiser’s career in Danzig, see Catherine Epstein, Model Nazi: Arthur Greiser and the Occupation of Western Poland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 15-123. Danzig’s SA leader, Bruno Fricke, was moreover familiar with Mennonites abroad. He had lived in Latin America and published about a group in Paraguay. Bruno Fricke, “Das Drama der Sklaven im Chaco,” Münchener Beobachter, August 22, 1926.

8. See Imanuel Baumann, “Der Mennonit und Nationalsozialist Otto Andres (1902–1975),” Mennonitische Geschichtsblätter 75 (2018): 87-99. Andres (who left the Mennonite church in the mid-1930s) also served as Commissioner for the county of Großes Werder, one of five major administrative regions of the Free City. His deputy, Cornelius Jansson, was a practicing Mennonite. Jansson took over administrative duties in Großes Werder when Andres was away, e.g., when he became the Lieutenant Governor (Stellvertreter-Gauleiter) of Danzig-West Prussia in late 1939. In this capacity, Jansson was involved in the expansion of the Stutthof concentration camp. Horst Gerlach, “The Final Years of Mennonites in East and West Prussia, 1943–45,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 66, no. 2 (1992): 239.

9. Of five SS officers in the Free City with the common Mennonite surname “Wiens,” only one listed Mennonite affiliation, and church records show that he remained unbaptized. See A3343, roll 243B, Captured German and Related Records, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland, USA (hereafter NARA); Christian Neff, ed., Mennonitisches Adreßbuch 1936 (Karlsruhe, 1936), 202. By contrast, four rank-and-file SS men with the common Mennonite surname “Enss,” self-identified as Mennonite. See A3343-SM-C107, NARA. These preliminary findings conform to broader patterns among Christians in the SS. See Herbert F. Ziegler, Nazi Germany’s New Aristocracy: The SS Leadership, 1925-1939 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 87. Mennonite church leaders appear to have welcomed SS membership among congregants. When the SS denied membership to one Mennonite, faith leaders appealed directly to Himmler. Emil Händiges to Heinrich Himmler, August 12, 1938, Vereinigung, folder: Briefw. 1938 Jul.-Dez., MFS. In another case, the son of a preacher from southern Germany joined the SS “without problem by giving a Mennonite promise [rather than swearing an oath].” Benjamin Unruh to Gerhard Wolfrum, January 19, 1944, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 4, folder 21, MFS.

10. See NSDAP membership files for elders Johannes Dyck II of Ladekopp (joined 1936), Bruno Enss of Orlofferfelde (joined 1936), Bruno Ewert of Heubuden (joined 1937), Johann Penner of Ladekopp (applied 1936 – no surviving membership card), Ernst Regehr of Rosenort (joined 1931), and Franz Regehr of Tiegenhagen (joined 1933), NARA. A Mennonite delegation to Nazi headquarters in Munich affirmed, “As a church we unconditionally support the party.” These delegates reported that in Danzig, “the great majority of elders and preachers are members of the party.” Gustav Reimer, “Bericht über die Verhandlung in Braunen Haus in München am 6.7.1938, betreffend die Regelung der Eidesfrage,” Vereinigung, box 2, folder: Briefw. 1938 Jul.-Dez., MFS. Internal church correspondence confirms: “numerous respected members of the Mennonite ministry wear the swastika on their breast with pride and joy as party members.” Emil Händiges to Daniel Dettweiler, Benjamin Unruh, Ernst Crous, Abraham Braun, and Gustav Reimer, June 23, 1938, Vereinigung, box 2, folder: Briefw. 1938 Jan.-Jun., MFS.

11. Gerlach, “The Final Years,” 240. Hitler spoke at this meeting with the Mennonite Walter Neufeldt, Commissioner of Marienburg County in East Prussia. In response to Hitler’s request for follow-up, Neufeldt gathered documents with help from church leaders Johannes Dyck II and Gustav Reimer and the non-Mennonite historian Erich Keyser.

12. The racial scientist Friedrich Keiter evaluated 386 Mennonites from the Rosenort, Orlofferfelde, Ladekopp, and Heubuden congregations in Danzig as well as from the Elbing and Markushof-Thiensdorf churches in East Prussia. He noted the “especially gracious obligingness of the Mennonites themselves,” thanking the Danzig elders Erich Göttner, Franz Regehr, and Johann Penner as well as Emil Händiges and Cornelius Dirksen of East Prussia. Friedrich Keiter, Rußlanddeutsche Bauern und ihre Stammesgenossen in Deutschland (Jena: Gustav Fischer, 1934), 2. Erich Keyser lauded Danzig Mennonites’ “special racial biological importance” and recommended further “detailed racial examination.” Erich Keyser, “Die Mennoniten im Weichselland,” Volk und Rasse 17, no. 4 (1942): 72-73.

13. The secretary of the Union of Mennonite Congregations in the German Reich explained this process to the Union’s two top officials: “I have experience approving (notarizing) ancestry passports in cases when they cannot be notarized by registry offices. It is probably the case for all ancestry passports that some ancestors can be notarized by the registry office, and others must be notarized by the appropriate church official. In our congregations, the church council is of course entitled to perform notarizations by affixing the congregational seal.” Abraham Braun to Emil Händiges and Ernst Crous, December 22, 1939, Vereinigung, folder: Briefw. 1939, MFS. In the Free City of Danzig, deacon Gustav Reimer of Heubuden became particularly active in notarizing Aryan papers for practicing as well as former Mennonites. According to Reimer, “none of the men from our circles who today hold leading positions in the economy or politics could have provided the necessary proof of Aryan ancestry without my assistance.” Gustav Reimer, “Fritz van Bergen-Kartei,” Mitteilungen des Sippenverbandes Danziger Mennoniten-Familien 8, no. 4/5 (1942): 128-130. He reported that without church records, “proving Aryan ancestry—especially for dates before 1800—would never have been possible.” Gustav Reimer, “Die Kirchenbücher der Menno. Gemeinden in West- und Ostpreussen,” Der Berg 7 (1940): 83. Ancestry documentation from before 1800 would only have been necessary for people in high party or state positions, such as SS officers.

14. On this “Epp Kommando,” see Jania Grabowska, Stutthof: Ein Konzentrationslager vor den Toren Danzigs (Bremen: Edition Temmen, 1995), 30, 55, 74; Günter Regaag, ed., Ostseebad Stutthof (Heimat-Dokumentation Stutthof, 1995), 114-115; Marek Orski, Niewolnicza praca więźniów obozu koncentracyjnego Stutthof w latach 1939-1945 (Gdańsk: Muzeum Stutthof w Sztutowie, 1999), 61, 136, 156-158, 167-168, 178, 236-239, 263, 294, 302; Danuta Drywa, The Extermination of Jews in Stutthof Concentration Camp (Gdańsk: Muzeum Stutthof w Sztutowie, 2004), 118; Danuta Drywa, “Stutthof – Stammlager,” in Der Ort des Terrors: Geschichte der nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager, vol. 6, ed. Wolfgang Benz and Barbara Distel (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2007), 512; Rempel, “Mennonites and the Holocaust,” 520-525. Epp was a member of the Mennonite church in Tiegenhagen. Neff, ed., Mennonitisches Adreßbuch, 205. Broader Mennonite involvement with the Stutthof camp requires further study. Lists of camp staff include surnames common among Danzig Mennonites, including Bartels, Berg, Classen, Dirks, Enss, Fast, Foth, Friese, Gortz, Haack, Hamm, Janson, Jansson, Jantz, Jantzen, Janz, Janzen, Löwen, Pauls, Peters, Ratzlaff, Reimer, Schröder, Thimm, Unrau, Vogt, Wall, Wedel, Wiebe, and Zimmermann. See the three-part staff list: Mirosław Gliński, “Załoga obozu koncentracyjnego Stutthof,” Stutthof: Zeszyty Muzeum 5 (1984): 188-216; 6 (1985): 97-120; 7 (1987): 203-234. These names might profitably be checked against Mennonite church lists.

15. After extensive exchange of correspondence, a Mennonite delegation met with Wartheland officials on January 22, 1942. Emil Händiges to Gausippenamt im Warthegau, August 31, 1944, Nachlaß Ernst Crous, folder: Briefw. 1944, MFS. After this meeting, SS officers in Wartheland identified Mennonites in the Americas as their preferred settlers. See Andreas Strippel, NS-Volkstumspolitik und die Neuordnung Europas: Rassenpolitische Selektion der Einwandererzentralstelle des Chefs der Sicherheitspolizei und des SD, 1939-1945 (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2011), 245. A lay Mennonite leader from the Lemberg church, Rudolf Dick, acquired affiliation with Wartheland’s Department for Ethnic Questions, where he advocated for Mennonites. Dick helped organize Benjamin Unruh’s meeting with Wartheland governor Arthur Greiser on March 16, 1944. In addition to welcoming Mennonites from Ukraine, Greiser expressed interest in “the planned resettlement of [Mennonites] from overseas, right after the end of the war.” Unruh “Bericht über Verhandlungen im Warthegau.” After Unruh’s trip, SS officers issued special instructions for handling Mennonite resettlers. Strippel, NS-Volkstumspolitik und die Neuordnung Europas, 247.

16. Two thirds of soldiers in a Wehrmacht division that fought around the Mennonite settlements in Ukraine were reportedly from Danzig, with some units being up to forty percent Mennonite. Horst Gerlach, Die Russlandmennoniten, vol. 1 (Kirchheimbolanden: Selbstverlag, 1992), 90. Reports of invaders’ encounters with Mennonites in Ukraine include Günther Fieguth, “Volksdeutscher Aufbruch am Dniepr,” Danziger Vorposten, December 13, 1942; Agnes Epp, “Ein Geschenk des Führers an unsers Sippenangehörigen in der Ukraine,” Mitteilungen des Sippenverbandes Danziger Mennoniten-Familien 8, no. 3 (1942), 112-113; P.H., “Von unseren Siedlungen in der Ukraine,” Nachrichtenblatt des Sippenverbandes Danziger Mennoniten-Familien (December 1943): 2-3.

17. Benjamin Unruh testified after the war that Werner Lorenz, who headed the Ethnic German Office of the SS, had been “very well acquainted with the Mennonites from Danzig, and he knew the attitude of our church, and he respected our attitude, and he promised us all possible support.” “United States of America v. Ulrich Greifelt et al.,” December 17, 1947, M894, roll 4, NARA. Unruh took up regular contact with Lorenz after a personal audience with Himmler: “An extremely good relationship has developed between us and the high [Nazi] leaders. I may write and meet at any time in relation to Mennonite matters. We have agreed that Lorenz will personally work on our matters. He is constantly in contact with Himmler and [Horst] Hoffmeyer [an SS officer responsible for Mennonites in Ukraine].” Benjamin Unruh to Emil Händiges, January 22, 1943, Vereinigung, box 3, folder: Briefw. 1943, MFS.

18. Irena Sławińska and Franciszek Ścigała, “Kocborowo (Conradstein) Landesanstalt für psychische Kranke,” in Die Ermordung der Geisteskranken in Polen, 1939-1945, ed. Zdzisław Jaroszewski (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, 1993), 57-63; Volker Rieß, Die Anfänge der Vernichtung ‘lebensunwerten Lebens’ in den Reichsgauen Danzig-Westpreußen und Wartheland 1939/40 (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1995), 23-53, 150-166; Maria Fiebrandt, Auslese für die Siedlergesellschaft: Die Einbeziehung Volksdeutscher in die NS-Erbgesundheitspolitik im Kontext der Umsiedlungen 1939-1945 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014), 293-297. For more background, see Doris Bergen, War & Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), 129-165.

19. One boy reported hearing that previous inhabitants of the Konitz mental institution “had been ‘disposed of’ as being, in Hitler-perspective, ‘unworthy life.’” Waldemar Janzen, Growing Up in Turbulent Times: Memoirs of Soviet Oppression, Refugee Life in Germany, and Immigrant Adjustment to Canada (Winnipeg: CMU Press, 2007), 62.

20. Gustav Reimer to Christian Neff, May 26, 1944, Christian Neff Nachlaß, Folder: Briefwechsel 1944, MFS.

21. Christiana Epp Duschinsky, “Mennonite Responses to Nazi Human Rights Abuses: A Family in Prussia/Danzig,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 32 (2014): 87-89. See also Gerlof Homan, “From Danzig to Down Under: A Mennonite-Jewish Family’s Escape from the Nazis to Australia,” Mennonite Historical Bulletin 73, no. 1 (2012): 13-18. Mennonite church leaders’ attitudes toward Nazi euthanasia policies require additional research. Other faith groups exhibited substantial opposition to euthanasia, and at least one Mennonite preached a sermon opposing it. James Irvin Lichti, Houses on the Sand? Pacifist Denominations in Nazi Germany (New York: Peter Lang, 2008), 79. However, faith leaders’ sympathies appear to have been limited. Benjamin Unruh worked with colleagues to help keep most Mennonite refugee families from Ukraine together, but when SS agents told him disabled members could not be settled in Wartheland with other Mennonites, he did not press the matter. Benjamin Unruh, “Bericht über meine zweite Reise in den Warthegau,” July 17, 1944, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 4, folder 21, MFS.

22. Ewert, “Four Centuries of Prussian Mennonites,” 17.

23. 41,500 prisoners had died in the main Stutthof camp or its satellite facilities between 1939 and 1945. Another 21,500 died during the evacuation in the last weeks of the war. Forty-three percent of all Stutthof inmates killed were Jews, and the vast majority of these died during the war’s final year. Drywa, “Stutthof – Stammlager,” 520.

24. Ewert, “Four Centuries of Prussian Mennonites,” 18.

25. Peter Goertz to Emil [Unknown] and Rachel [Unknown], November 15, 1947, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence October-December 1947, Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kansas, USA.

26. Two of the four individuals MCC staff had originally chosen turned out to be former Nazis. When MCC workers tried to replace these delegates, they found the refugee group from Danzig-West Prussia “apparently has no non-party members among its active ministers in the western zones of Germany at the present time.” Harold Bender to Orie Miller, P.C. Hiebert, and H.A. Fast, March 13, 1948, IX-06-03, box 64, folder 35/73, Mennonite Central Committee Archives, Akron, Pennsylvania, USA (hereafter MCCA). MCC staff thus worked with many former Nazis, although they praised the anti-Nazi Hermann Epp and hired him for editorial work: “He is the one Mennonite from West Prussia, or even in all Germany, so far as I know, who suffered for his anti-Nazi convictions, and spent some time in prison…. He, alone of all the West Prussian refugees [i.e. from Danzig-West Prussia] in Denmark, has been classified as an Allied D.P. [Displaced Person], and consequently has received freedom and different treatment.” Harold Bender to C.F. Klassen and Robert Kreider, October 25, 1947, IX-06-03, box 55, folder 29/147, MCCA.

27. “MCC Gronau Annual Report 1950,” December 1, 1950, IX-19-16.3, box 1, folder 9/27, MCCA. When 62 Danzig Mennonites applied for Canadian visas as a test case, 35 were denied due to past party membership. Sponsors in Canada assessed that, since “most Danziger were connected with the party,” any large-scale migration to Canada would require changing rules that barred Nazis. J.J. Thiessen, “Bericht des Vorsitzenden der Canadian Mennonite Board of Colonization für die erweiterte Boardsitzung,” March 1, 1951, IX-19-9, box 3, folder 2/21, MCCA.

MCC at 100: Mennonites, Service, and the Humanitarian Impulse

University of Winnipeg’s Centre for Transnational Mennonite Studies invites all to attend a free virtual conference “MCC at 100: Mennonites, Service, and the Humanitarian Impulse.” This three-day conference running from September 30 to October 2 brings together more than three dozen presentations that cover diverse aspects of Mennonite Central Committee’s 100 year history ranging from famine relief in Ukraine in the 1920s to the relief agency’s role in peace-building, rural development and refugee movements across the globe. A featured evening session on September 30, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, reflects on “MCC and Indigenous-settler relations in Turtle Island.”  Attendees can register for the conference and view a full program at https://mennonitestudies.uwinnipeg.ca/events/